the ‘big society’ announcement

On Monday, I went with Gordon Nicolson and others to hear the Prime Minister announce the Eden Valley as a pilot for the ‘Big Society’.  On Tuesday, I read that a resident of Crosby Ravensworth did not know what this meant.  He or she is not alone. It is very confusing. We are accustomed to projects meaning money and new organisations. So we might expect Big Society to be something like Cumbria Vision or the Lottery Fund. But Big Society isn’t something you can get like a pot of money, or an officer: it’s an approach.

In a Big Society project, government is more likely to contribute a public asset, technical advice, or a loan. It is more likely to abolish regulations than make new ones.  In a Big Society broadband project, for example, the government could open access to government cables, lend to communities that want to set up their own systems or put pressure on BT. If this approach is flexible and imaginative enough, it can achieve minor miracles. Government cannot afford to spend the £12bn pounds that BT estimates it would take to deliver superfast broadband to Britain. But we hope to show in Cumbria that there is a way of doing it at a fraction of the cost and time. If you are interested do please come to our conference in Rheged on 18th September.

I’ve got in trouble recently talking to a journalist about poverty in Cumbria.  I regret talking to him because he quoted me out of context. The message I was trying to get across is that Cumbria is not some uniform, leafy Surrey suburb.  The journalist, and even Treasury officials sometimes appear to imagine that because our villages look tidy they are full of only wealthy, retired professionals.  Of course, we have such people, but there are also pockets of poverty.  Farmers can live in conditions which force them to be self-reliant in ways that can seem surprising to an outsider.  Our elderly often live in isolation, where fuel costs are high and there are no bus services.

We need to communicate this if we are to continue to get the services we need. We must also make sure the Cumbrian volunteers – who do so much that government will never do – are not deterred by the pettiness of paperwork and the senseless rulings that I see every week in surgery. I am reminded daily how much government likes to specify, regulate, and standardize.  It finds real, living communities messy and inconvenient and can think of three hundred reasons to say ‘no’ or ’not yet’.  The Big Society is ultimately about challenging that mindset. The Prime Minister, I believe, sees his role as one of leadership, to pass the message down to every level, that we must free communities.

I made my first speech in the chamber this week. Before I came here I had some image, drawn from a history book, of Disraeli pulling himself to his feet at midnight to mesmerise the back-benches with an hour and a quarter of polished and erudite oratory.  I hoped that one day I too could try some rhetoric, or at least earn a laugh in the chamber. But I have found it difficult to get involved. The chamber has been packed with new members who often seemed astonishingly well-informed about ten-minute rules and adjournments, topical questions (submitted on a pink slip) and written questions (on a white slip). They even know when the mace should be placed on the table and when under it.  It all made me feel like a clumsy dancer, learning the steps by rote as everyone else glides effortlessly past.

It took me three separate pieces of paper to work out last week that Labour amendment 58 on the Finance Bill was in support of VAT exemption for Mountain Rescue. As a Cumbrian and as the Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mountain Rescue I did not feel I could vote against it. Labour initially let it pass without a vote and then suddenly reintroduced it without a debate. And I had a moment’s notice to explain to my Conservative whip that I would not vote. He was surprisingly understanding. But it all felt muddled, hurried and slightly worrying. When I told an older MP, he joked ‘that’ll teach you to find out what amendments say’.

I paid tribute to David Maclean in my speech. I have been struck whenever I come across his case-work by the energy, care and honesty with which he fought for all constituents. During Foot and Mouth, with his cromach in his hand, he brought all his knowledge and fighting spirit to Cumbria. The constituency boundaries follow those of the old Western March and I told the house that I felt, at that moment, that he was the Warden of our March.

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