Magazine article

From The Information Daily

The Big Society was a flagship of the Conservative Party manifesto at the last election and included in the Coalition Agreement that followed it. Yet, according to Sir Stephen Bubb, the head of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, it is “effectively dead”.

Cynics might argue that, although it was proposed, it was never actually conceived. However, as a natural optimist and maintaining the medical terminology, there is no reason why it can’t be resuscitated and every reason why it should. Furthermore our current economic woes shouldn’t be an excuse not to proceed; they weren’t when the NHS was created 60 odd years ago. Indeed it could be argued that if we use the skills of all our people, the results are more likely to demonstrate that we really are all in this together and, thus, become the material of our social fabric. The process though will need effort and resources and is something that a government can’t entirely absent itself from if it wishes to create that society.

First, however, we need to consider what was envisaged. According to Jesse Norman in his book “The Big Society”, it was a concerted and wide ranging attempt to engage with the twin challenges of social and economic decline and involved a move to a more connected society. This latter to be understood in terms of affection or personal ties and based on the conjecture that, beneath the surface of British society, lies a vast amount of latent and untapped talent. Something I am a great believer in. In order to do this, Mr Norman uses historical precedent stating that the idea is grounded in British culture. I wouldn’t disagree with that except that I have a somewhat different reading of that history. Certainly, it needs to be emphasised that we do have a rich tradition of community action, mutual self help and co-operation that embodies the virtues of an active civil society. Indeed, at the end of the 18th century, the growth of societies among the citizens of Birmingham led to the cultural transformation that became the Midlands Enlightenment. Self improvement took hold leading to the establishment of, for example, Mechanics’ Institutes, creating a cultural and political consciousness of some vitality. Along the way, a movement was created whereby self help was related to greater involvement and control in which working people played an active part in shaping civic society.

Secondly, we need to address the conjecture about latent talent. Now, having worked for over 30 years in the voluntary sector, largely on self help initiatives, I like to think that I have some experience of the sort of projects Mr Norman describes when he writes of small things that could add up to something greater and, thus, make a difference. He also writes that there are many, once you start looking. There are indeed and they reflect that untapped potential; amply demonstrated, for example, on schemes where people who were homeless and unemployed, built their own eco homes and, in doing so, created small communities. Because those involved worked closely with their architect, they learnt about design and management. So much so that some of them went on to manage other schemes. Others built their own community buildings, notably a group of people with special needs. An example of what an MP, on seeing one of these schemes, described as the results of “the extraordinary talents of ordinary people”. In addition, were self renovation schemes in Hull where, in the 1980’s, a group of unemployed people also decided to solve their own housing problems. With no previous experience, they clubbed together, using their giro’s, to buy their first house. This was renovated and used as collateral to buy more houses which were also renovated and rented to people on low incomes. Giroscope continues its work today with over 50 properties and 9 businesses. Importantly, the organisation retains it community ethos.

Another example builds on what Jane Jacobs described in her book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, as the inbuilt police force that existed when people lived “over the shop” helping to create a vitality often absent from our shopping centres today. The former living accommodation is now usually vacant and those who lived there have been replaced by CCTV. According to a report of 2004, this amounted to over 300,000 properties in England alone providing potential accommodation for nearly half a million people. Such schemes reuse old buildings, create homes, reduce transport costs and bring life back into our shopping centres. The latter particularly opportune given what is currently happening to our high streets. There used to be a voluntary organisation, Living Over the Shop, that helped to bring these properties back into use, providing a good return for their owners. Unfortunately, its funding ran out, demonstrating both the innovative approach and the limitations of the voluntary sector.

Lastly, I would cite city farms, notably Windmill Hill in Bristol, which has always provided a range of activities starting with the first children’s rumpus room in the city. In addition to its agricultural, horticultural and environmental facilities, it has an adventure playground, a computer centre, a 5 a side sports pitch and a cafe. It has run animation projects, art exhibitions, a mini market, a children’s cinema and courses on computer use, arts and crafts, low impact living, lifelong learning and digital photography. It also ran a project called “Make IT Yours” providing adults with mental health issues with the opportunity to combine photography and writing to tell their stories. You would be hard pushed to find a better example of how a project can meet a range of local needs and establish itself as a focus of community activity. A local Big Society in fact.

Common to all these schemes is that they involve people in solving their own problems, creating assets and developing skills. Releasing, in fact, that untapped potential. Working with organisations, such as Credit Unions, community businesses, social enterprises, community libraries and others that help people to help themselves, they could create the framework for that big society.

I end with a response to a question that I used to get asked, namely, “Where do these amazing people (the self builders) came from?” My answer was to liken the situation to one of those TV wildlife programmes. In this, the view is of a barren landscape. The narrator is explaining how it only rains in this area once every ten years, at which point, it starts to rain. Raindrops hit the dry ground, quickly becoming a downpour. This turns into a torrent during which time the earth in nourished. The scene then changes to a couple of days later when that same landscape is blooming with plants. I explained that people are like those plants. They have been under that barren earth all the time just waiting for the right conditions for them to blossom. The Big Society awaits those conditions, so why not create them? It is no more difficult than not doing so and so much more worthwhile.

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