Big Society – thoughts from the frontline part 2 #bigsociety

This week we held the second in our series of briefing seminars on Big Society and the new government’s plans and priorities, this time in Hull. The mood and the discussion was somewhat different to the first event we held in London but similarly interesting and engaging. On the train back to London I tried to work out how it was different and why.

 

Overall, the atmosphere felt a little bit more downbeat and people seemed more pessimistic than the previous event. This may be because with every passing day news arrives of further cuts and the prospects get even bleaker, and so from one week to the next people are getting more and more worried about what the future holds. Attention seemed to be more focused on the impact of the public spending cuts and working out what to do to mitigate them as best we can, rather than any great sense of optimism that the Big Society programme might offer. Of course it could simply be down to local experience and the relationship community groups have with their local public sector. And if the Work Foundation’s new report is correct , then people in Hull genuinely do have good reason to be nervous, as it is one of three cities most likely to be ‘left behind’! It’s hard to draw too many conclusions from a small number of people (without taking into account endless other contributing factors), but the difference was noticeable.

 

And yet, amid all the doom and gloom there were some chinks of light and one fantastic example of how the vision of the Big Society could be realised and how it could offer opportunities to community groups. A member told me of a local community group which had taken it upon itself to organise the provision of meals to housebound residents. The local authority runs a meals on wheels service which charges people £4 for a meal. The community group, without worrying about anything other than addressing the problem it sees, has set up a parallel service which provides high quality home cooked food (which I was told is of superior quality to the meals on wheels fare) and for a cheaper price (£3.50 per meal).

 

That strikes me as being exactly what the government means by Big Society. People coming together and taking action on a problem they see in their community. And now, with the introduction of a new ‘right to bid’ being offered, the group will surely have an opportunity to take over the running of the meals on wheels service from the council and receiving some of the resources that are currently going into it. The service (on the basis of what I was told) will be run more efficiently, more cheaply and better than it is now. Everyone, not least of all the people purchasing the meals, benefits. Now that strikes me as a great example of the potential for Big Society.

 

Toby Blume
Chief Executive
Urban Forum

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3 thoughts on “Big Society – thoughts from the frontline part 2 #bigsociety

  1. Spot on as ever, Toby. I think there’s a lot of pessimism in the north of England because we can see the effects of the spending cuts already, and some are already starting to see the Big Society as the equivalent of teaching people to swim by throwing them into shark-infested waters.It doesn’t have to be like that. But I think we need to develop our own expressions of what Big Society means where we are and ensure that they reflect our values. We’re starting to do that – there’s an initial event in Sheffield on 27 July and Urban Forum members are really welcome. See http://grou.ps/bigsocietynorth/home and http://bsitnorth.eventbrite.com/

  2. I think Julian has hit the nail on the head. Hull is a VERY different place to London, and it is somewhere, in common with other parts of the North, where people are finding it hard to see past the looming public sector cuts and think about what might happen instead. People need to understand just how dependent some parts of the North are on public expenditure, and how shocking what is currently happening is to them.This is one of the reasons why we are working to develop a distinctive voice for the Big Society in the North, that recognises this impact, while maintaining a focus on what community and collaborative effort can do to minimise it and build new hope. Putting aside political views about public spending, the Big Society in the North has to recognise the realities of the situations we are in – the twin realities of major disruptions to local communities which will be caused by the withdrawal of swathes of public spending, and of having to build and re-build community infrastructure without a blanket under-pinning of public funding.I, for one, am optimistic that we can do this, but it will require real focus, and it is not going to be easy.

  3. thanks guys. worth pointing out that the london event had people from further afield…including the North. i think it could say more about Hull specificially than anything else – the Work Foundation;s report is very interesting. but i do realise that there are differences – but not just north/south…cornwall, for example is pretty deprived.there’s rural/urban differences, affluent/poor, young/old…..all sorts of stuff at play. but i applaud any initiative to self-organise along any lines…as that’s always (imho) the foundation for action and change!

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