thoughts on the big society

I thought I’d share a couple of points I’ve been trying to make in correspondence with a constituent about the Big Society: thoughts welcome…

Big Society projects are by their very nature local and varied. For that reason, they can only be fully assessed on the ground and in a particular place. A successful big society project is most visible in people, in attitudes, in transformation on the ground. It is not something which can be represented by council or district councils – since it is often about the views of much more local groups – who may be challenging the councils themselves.

I feel society and government is changing very quickly in ways that go a long way beyond money. These include new sources of power and information, new relations between the citizen and the state, new legal rights and powers and new roles for local rural communities.

The projects in Eden build off people and structures that have been in place for decades, yet the Big Society is nevertheless – surprisingly – fresh and worthwhile. If you were able to visit these projects you would find that something very interesting happening. These are things, which are not recorded in a budgetary allocation. They are shown in people, in a sense of confidence, in a sense of possibility. And in projects, where civil servants prioritise the decisions of the community, bust barriers for them and find public money for them.

These projects can often require some money but they are about much more than money. You cannot measure the government’s idea of the Big Society or its commitment to it, simply by how much money they put into it. Sometimes, the government’s role lies in repealing legislation or changing rules. It is possible for some projects to flourish – as they are in Eden – even at a time of overall cuts in government expenditure. Sometimes the projects don’t require public funds – or often much less public money than under another model.

Our broadband projects are an excellent example of this. We are making fiber-optic go much deeper and further, thanks to community support than it would ever have done if we had relied on traditional government funding. Again, it’s not free but the community role, influence and contribution in Eden will be much larger than in Cornwall broadband for example. It is a different kind of project: cheaper and faster and more creative than a centrally planned project.

I sometimes feel that people come up with so many theoretical objections to the Big Society: money, lack of capacity, danger – that you’d think it would be impossible for it to work; but it does. It reminds me of philosophers proving a bird can’t fly: but it can.

That exactly why I am pressing so hard for people to actually walk on the ground and see what is happening. I suspect that the reason this debate has become so polarised is that people are not visiting and seeing the people and facts on the ground. Put simply they are not seeing what makes Big Society different to other approaches to the citizen.

Please do write in if you have any thoughts you’d like to share…

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