Call it the Big Society, call it Community Empowerment, call it whatever you like, but I urge anyone who believes in trusting people before big government to think about what can we do to foster this new direction?
What can the Government do to hand over those reigns of power to local communities? How can we build local capacity for delivery? How can we develop parish and town councils into becoming real driving forces in our communities? How can we change and develop under threat services into community led services and social enterprises to secure their future? How can we encourage our communities to become engaged in social action and maintain the many projects we already have through greater local cooperation and sharing of resources?
This is a truly radical agenda. You have an opportunity to shape the Big Society you want to see.
Earlier this month, at our first ever Tynedale Big Society Summit the aim was to showcase existing Big Society projects in Tynedale, directly influence Government policy, share best practice, and find out what local people thought was right, and indeed what was wrong with the agenda so far.
We had initially hoped to have around 100 attendees, representing enterprise, charities, volunteers, youth groups and a host of other organisations. However on the day we ended up with more than 150 guests keen to hear what the Big Society agenda was going to mean for them locally.
Greg Clark MP, the Minister for Decentralisation kindly opened the day with a video introduction outlining the Government's vision and making it clear that the much of his work on the Big Society was about looking at those projects which work or are budding, and stepping into remove bureaucratic burdens and make sure government wasn't choking off innovation and new community led ideas.
Kicking the day off with a keynote speech I described how the Big Society was very much about pushing power away from central government to local government and not stopping there. Going further than ever before and handing that power directly to communities, to towns, villages and individuals. Explaining that the The Big Society was more than just about volunteering but instead an interwoven fabric of social action, community empowerment, volunteering and local service delivery.
A big part of the day was showcasing some local projects already taking place which underpin our own Big Society here in West Northumberland. We heard from Joan and her volunteers who run the Prudhoe Community Allotment, creating a green oasis in the middle of one of the more deprived areas. We heard from Dick and his team demonstrating real community empowerment saving Humshaugh Village Shop from closure by rolling up their sleeves and taking over the shop themselves. Turning it into a beacon of what communities can do when they pull together.
However the day was more than just a showcase, it was a chance for the volunteers, community activists and social entrepreneurs which will take the Big Society forward to come together, to interact, to ask questions and make their voice heard. Many felt hopeful that the new emphasis on trusting communities would result in greater participation in local democracy, particularly town and parish councils, which could see themselves flush with powers formally in the hands of civil servants tens if not hundreds of miles away.
It was hoped that the Big Society Agenda would see a greater celebration of the work of voluntary and community groups which already do so much good in our communities already – treating such groups as the first port of call rather than an after thought when we politicians identify problems we want to fix. That will be a huge step change in the relationship between the state and the voluntary sector. Proposals around trusting charities to deliver more services and payment by results were welcomed.
There were however concerns; namely around funding and infrastructure.
We identified what we termed the 'infrastructure gap' – whilst it was acknowledged new infrastructures would become available, such as the Government's plans for 5,000 new Community Organisers, the concern was that in the short term infrastructures which charities and local groups had relied on over the past decade, would be reduced before new ones were in place. I'll be taking those particular concerns up with the Minister, looking for ways in which we can ensure established projects can retain that expertise and advice as we develop the Big Society.
Secondly there was the issue of funding. It's an obvious one and not something the Government should be shy to discuss. As local Council's make cutbacks many local charities are going to find state funding harder to come by. What was very impressive however was the the ideas coming from floor about how this could be tackled. Bidding for local service delivery from Councils and Government represents a huge opportunity for voluntary groups to develop into Social Enterprises and open up a whole new revenue stream. Sharing of resources, working together, through for example sharing fundraising staff in a cooperative by a number of different local charities was an idea which particularly caught my eye.
However, we must also be honest and say that if the government simply rolls back and does less, society won't automatically be able spring up and do more.
The truth is that the Government does have a role in helping to build up the Big Society – after more than decade of being squeezed by bureaucracy and state intervention our Big Society is going to take some resuscitating.
The Big Society bank, now boosted by an extra £200 million from Britain's High Street banks will be a key asset for charities looking to expand their operations. I hope the proposals for a £100 million access fund for charities badly affected by local government cuts will also help with some of the short term difficulties that some fear.
Towards the end of the day we moved towards looking for solutions and producing an Action Plan to take the Big Society Agenda forward in my constituency with real quantitative steps to take things forward, demonstrating community-led planning at its best.
The over riding message from our Summit was clear. Yes there are difficulties ahead but there are also opportunities. Right now is an opportunity to help shape the mechanisms that will underpin the Big Society
To view more photos from the day, click here.