The Prime Minister’s Big Society initiative has the power to make a fundamental change to the way we live.
The situation in Dover is a concrete example why this change is needed. To the people of Dover, the port is an important facility. Yet people feel it has done little to benefit the town beyond that. As a public corporation, the board is appointed by Whitehall and it is to Whitehall they owe their allegiance. So why should they care about the local community?
Labour put our port up for sale. That plan, if carried through, would see the port sold off to big business from overseas. Dover would see hardly any benefit and zero community engagement. One remote interest would simply be swapped for another.
That’s why a bid has been organised for the people of Dover to take over the port. The People’s Port community trust is composed of serious experts living in the Dover community and eminent business figures like Sir Patrick Sheehy and Algy Cluff. A £200m bid has been submitted to the Prime Minister. Anyone living or working locally can become a member for £10, as it is organised like the co-op.
This bid is serious and bank backed. City institution Evolution is the financial adviser and the bid has the support of the ferry companies operating at the port. The offer is fully funded. The business plan provides for £100m to be invested in the port over the next five years in the national interest and £50m for seafront regeneration.
Why does this matter?
The fundamental tenet of the Big Society is that no-one cares about their back yard more than the people who live there. The Dover community is our home. Dover used to be a jewel in the crown of our nation. 70 years ago, a beautiful Regency town was lost in WWII’s Hellfire Corner. 70 years of Big Government has done little to help Dover rebuild. In Dover we know that with investment and regeneration we could restore Dover to greatness.
We have learned not to expect any help from Big Government. Besides, we can see Labour maxed out the nation’s credit card. All we ask for is Government to get out of the way. To let our community take opportunity, responsibility and accountability. So we can get on with transforming our town. This is why we want to buy the port. To bring together the town, port and ferry companies in a landmark of the Prime Minister’s Big Society.
Support for this project crosses party boundaries. Labour councillors and Lib Dem supporters may be found on the community trust. Labour MPs like Tristram Hunt praise the project, seeing the co-operative philosophy that underpins it. Lib Dem MPs pull me aside in the Division Lobby to ask what the Government is doing to help. New intake Conservative MPs liken the People’s Port to the town building of the 19th century. A time when Conservative and Liberal community champions were able to build great cities like Birmingham. What greater example of the Big Society is there, they say?
What’s not to like? This is where we come to the battle of vested interest that is currently raging up and down the land. The Dover story is not a battle between parties, politicians or philosophies. It is a battle with the Whitehall mandarins who fear loss of control. And a battle with large business interests that would like to buy the port to provide a return to their investors in far away lands. To neither is the future of Dover – or any community – a relevant consideration. This goes to the heart of the basic problem with Big Government and why the battle to build the Big Society will be so hard fought. It underlines how this cannot be the enterprise of the Prime Minister alone. It is the responsibility of each and every Government Minister if the project is truly to change our national way of life.
The prize for success will be great indeed. For Dover, the path will be cleared to see our town restored as a jewel in the crown of our land. The Gateway to our nation remaining forever England. The Government would get its money. Confidence in the town will be boosted, creating more jobs and money in a town that suffers from too much deprivation. And a clear message would be sent by all Ministers that the Big Society is not a soundbite. It is a governing philosophy that will enable towns and communities up and down the land to build a stronger future.