We know that these are challenging times for all involved with local government, but now is also a time of tremendous opportunity. Necessity forces innovation.
We need to create communities with ‘oomph’ – neighbourhoods where local residents are in charge of their own destiny, who feel that they can club together, get involved and shape the world around them.
There is a danger that tackling the dire state of the public finances defines all we do. If we are not going to let our opponents dominate the terms of debate then Conservatives in local government must respond to the challenge. Last week Wandsworth Council took a step closer towards that with the approval for a Big Society pilot project at York Gardens Library.
The project will still see the Council provide a small number of trained professional library staff, but will also tap into a significant bank of volunteers and take up offers of help and support from a local private school foundation that wants to contribute more to its surrounding neighbourhoods. Letting of surplus space to an adjacent school and housing teachers’ resources will bring in vital income.
Without this innovative rescue package one option had been to simply close the facility. If the pilot is successful we will continue to work together with the community to provide a children's library service, alongside some adult provision, a homework club, public-access computer and internet facilities and a community space.
If the Big Society is a society in which individual citizens feel big: big in terms of being supported and enabled; having real and regular influence; being capable of creating change in their neighbourhood, then we still have a way to go. Yet, by backing this scheme I hope Wandsworth has taken up the challenge of turning the overarching concept of the Big Society into something more concrete, meaningful and local.
The plan for York Gardens Library provides an excellent example of the creative, new ways of working Wandsworth wants to develop. Late last year the council launched the Wandsworth Challenge – an ambitious plan to change the way the council provides public services and works with residents and community groups. Both Members and Officers have been challenged to find new and efficient ways of delivering services while at the same time empowering local people to help themselves.
The Big Society pilot is however only one part of that process. We also believe that more must be done to open up the services we currently deliver. That’s why we are beginning to put out the remaining library services for market testing. It is a developing market but we believe that the private sector, amongst others, could soon emerge to become an alternative to monopolistic state provision. If alternative providers come forward with something more innovative or cost effective then they will deliver library services on behalf of the Council.
Labour will, no doubt, accuse us of privatisation but the services currently funded by the state will still be funded by the state. It isn’t just about the private sector. Voluntary groups, for profit, non-profit making social enterprises or even a staff mutual will also be able to tender. In the debate we have had so far Labour councillors have shown themselves to be out of touch with our residents. As in most other walks of life, people care about the quality of provision and not the provider – particularly if it also represents value for money.
If success is about encouraging greater resilience, enabling people to take control over their own lives and driving a ‘can do’ culture that will help increase social mobility alongside the delivery of good value, then I am confident that the measures we voted for last week can deliver.