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Monday, February 26, 2007
Back from holiday; lessons from Switzerland
I'm back from a gloriously internet-free week in the Alps. OK, we succumbed to the internet cafe once, but the Blackberry stayed resolutely off and our media intake was limited to reading weather reports in the local papers (not enough snow, spring arriving a month early) and watching a Champions League match in a local bar.

This bar is actually part of a complex, in the small town where my partner's family have a flat, which readily illustrates some lessons that rural English towns could learn from the Swiss. It is a small town of around 3,000 permanent inhabitants and a low-key but faithful set of skiing and walking visitors - many with a small flat. Around 2 hours train ride from Geneva, it is properly rural, with cows in barns on the slopes and not an apres-ski bar in sight. But what it does have, in spades, is fantastic social infrastructure.

The centrepiece is a bowling alley with bar, cafe and arcade machines, on two floors underneath and overlooking an ice-rink which is tennis courts in summer. It has a small cinema and a very well-equipped playground in the centre of the village. It has a gym and five-a-side pitch. All of these mean that the 'youth' of all ages are busy and active, hanging out with their friends among the kids of the holidaymakers who also appreciate being able to do something fun in the evening. The bowling alley demonstrates perfectly the difference between the Swiss and British attitude towards 'youth'. It is not specifically or visibly aimed at young users, but the vast majority of its many users are teenagers chatting or playing shoot-em-up games, table football, bowling. But it has a proper, alcohol-serving bar; you can smoke; and those arcade games are there, all of which in the UK would be seen as encouraging under-age bingeing, violent tendencies, the abuse of cigarettes and other substances.

But inevitably the place is spotless; the kids act like teenagers; in groups, occasionaly yelling, mostly sulky; but not like louts. The bar manager employs young, relaxed bar staff; there is a little under-age drinking and plenty of smoking but in a safe and adult environment. The kids are, fundamentally, trusted. They walk home alone, or cycle. The money comes from the taxes that holiday homeowners pay for the privilege of 1000m2 (not more; large second homes are not permitted) in the Alps. What pretty British town in Devon or Suffolk thinks to exploit its cash cow in such a sensible way to meet the needs of the (often struggling) local population?

We know, of course, that the Swiss are exemplary in many ways - trains like clockwork - if, occasionally, a bit dull. But this small town demonstrates why they come 6th in that infamous UNICEF survey of children's welfare, when the UK came last. They scored top - at over 80% - on the question of whether their peers were kind and helpful. We still seem to think that kids should be out of sight and out of mind; or at least, corralled together with their own kind in a large padded cell, over-protected and patronised, left to fight it out amongst themselves with tragic consequences.

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