big society? It’s all about liberating the locals
Yesterday, the Prime-Minister highlighted the Eden communities in my constituency as exemplars of the Big Society. The concept – like much in modern politics – is a coalition within a coalition. But whatever Big Society means, there are some valuable things going on in communities in Cumbria. Last winter, I spent the first night of a five week walk through the constituency, in Kirkby Stephen. I did not focus on the beauty and history of this most remote of market towns (the nearest city and hospital is at Carlisle –a three hour round trip away) but went instead to the community centre to meet the leaders of the Upper Eden community plan.
The jargon in their ‘strategy document’ depressed me. But Libby Bateman, the project officer, won me over – and not only because she fed me a pie. She had grown up in Eden and knew almost everyone. She suggested how broadband access might be brought to the Mallerstang valley; she described the mothers who had built the Brough playground. And Alex (the locally born, unpaid chairman of a remote rural parish body) turned out to be a highly articulate liberal forty year-old solicitor. Prepare, in any community, for the most unexpected people.
A day later I turned down to Crosby Ravensworth, where Annie, Joan and David were designing their own affordable housing scheme, sealing their community purchase of the pub and building their own anaerobic digestor to generate their electricity. A week later I was walking towards Caldbeck, where the Northern Fells Group had set up their own bus service and run parts of their own elderly care.
Some say ‘Big Society’ is just a mask for government cuts. But these projects are not trying to replace, still less cut, the great national services such as health and highways. Some say it is only for wealthy areas but we are a low income area with serious deprivation. Two miles from Caldbeck I visited the cottage of a woman on a state pension who lives down an unpaved track with no indoor toilet. Some say it relies on leadership rarely found. But when I went to the village hall I found 120 volunteers working to support people in need in the parish.
I see an MP’s role as helping clear obstacles in these communities’ path. The people of Morland should not need to answer 15 questions and pay £50 for a permit to step in their own river to repair their own weir. If Ravonstonedale wants to build the bicycle path for half the price quoted by the county council contractor, why not? Why must Caldbeck spend weeks disguising simple worthwhile projects in fashionable jargon on donor application forms? The people of Kirkby Stephen should be able to choose to own and run their community center; Crosby Ravensworth to build their own affordable housing, and buy out their own pub. For this, our government needs to be more flexible; more respectful of the values and projects of local communities; more tolerant of risk. District councils should continue to provide strong support. And we will need new forms of financing and insurance.
This is not what everyone means by ‘Big Society’. The Cumbrian approach is not big, but local and particular. It is about decentralisation but without giving more power to county councils. It is not necessarily about charities or even the private sector, both capable of manufacturing jargon as impenetrable and procedures as rigid as the most Byzantine government bureaucracy. Nor is it about atomised individuals allowed to do whatever they want.
It’s about collective action. We have more common land in Cumbria than anywhere in Britain, stronger co-ops and mutualised banks; we support everything from the Air Ambulance to Mountain Rescue. These are not undertaken by grand philanthropists: they are about collective endeavour, be it on planning, financing, building, maintaining or supporting. This is what we mean by local democracy.
The people we work with are mostly unpaid, elected parish councillors: locals who in their own patch know more, care more, and are more likely to find creative and informed solutions than outsiders. When they consult they do so energetically, comprehensively. They live among their ‘clients’. David, who leads the Crosby project, is not protected by a call centre from suggestions and complaints: they come straight over his garden fence. Such people are unlikely to spend their own money on stupid or wasteful projects; they can build efficiently; they have a direct interest in maintaining their assets.
Cumbrian Big Society is no grand ideological project – we would not want it to be. Nor is it the only answer to our nation’s ills. But if we set these communities free; many services now threatened could be saved; projects which now look impossible – such as superfast rural broadband – could happen quickly. The value of what we create may go beyond service delivery and liberate a community’s imagination and pride.
Rory Stewart is MP for Penrith and the Border and Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Local Democracy