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.