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May 25, 2010

Inside No. 10

Amidst the razzamatazz of the launch of the Big Society programme, an interesting gathering of individuals from different parts of civil society received invites to Downing Street. Much analysis (too much) has gone into who was there or more importantly who wasn’t. Scotland did have a voice at the meeting – Alastair Tibbet of Greener Leith – which is apparently because of Twitter. No, I don’t either.  However, Alastair writes a very instructive account of what happened

All the email said was, “The meeting will discuss how to build a ‘big society’ where families and communities are supported and strengthened; and how to make a reality of this vision by making sure that the big society is matched by big citizens.” That was it. Although I did discover on the way home that the Lib/Con coalition had released a three page outline of their Big Society plans on the same day to the press.

When you get to Downing Street, you have to pass through some airport style security, at the gate, but then I found myself pretty much left alone in the street, bar the odd press hack on the other side of the road. What to do? On TV that famous number 10 door just opens anytime someone important looks at it. Well, it didn’t do that for me. I had to ask a policeman, whilst simultaneously praying my slightly comical dithering wasn’t going to end up on ‘Have I Got News For You’. Needless to say the policeman quietly advised me to use the door knocker. Of course, I thought, you just knock on the door.

Once inside, there were staff everywhere – presumably to make sure people didn’t inadvertently stumble into Samantha and the family choosing the new wall paper. I was efficiently ushered into the “Rose Garden” which you’d recognise, as it was the site of that first Dave and Nick double act when they announced their Liberal Conservative Coalition. There were nibbles and soft drinks, and a man cutting a tiny privet hedge into a perfect box with nail scissors in the corner.

It was to be a small gathering, just 22 of us in fact, including politicians and civil servants. And many of the attendees were as bemused as I was about how they’d ended up there. Indeed, it was Nick Hurd’s first time in the Rose Garden too – despite just being appointed as Minister for Civil Society.

The only person there who I’d had the pleasure of meeting before was Will Perrin at Talk About Local – who kindly got me invited to Downing Street in the first place. There was the Mayor of Middlesborough, Ray Mallon, who seems famed for a zero tolerance approach to policing and winding up the local Old Labour establishment. There was Martha Lane Fox, a digital inclusion campaigner. There was Camila Batmangheldidjh, social entrepeneur and founder of well respected Youth Charity Kids Compan and there were also representatives from a range of other third sector organisations. And there was me.

Both David and Nick (we’re on first name terms now you see?) said that they really saw the “Big Society” idea as one of the key areas where the Tories and the LibDems shared common ground – even if they’d been using different words to describe it. Apparently they both have a “love of this area” and “hope for a beautiful friendship” between the third sector and the government.

And a cynic would say they might well. Afterall, with billions of pounds worth of cuts coming, how else will the local services we all depend upon be maintained? Well the Big Society vision could see communities themselves owning and managing assets or providing more local services. The Prime Minister spoke of a ‘Community right to buy’ for public assets, and a “social investment bank” to help them do it. He wants to see a new generation of community organisers, supported by more open and accessible public data, and he mentioned some sort of National Service programme for teenagers. At the mention of that last point, I’m not sure if I was the only one looking at the floor…

The ensuing discussion focussed a lot around the sustainability of neighbourhood organisations, and how good ideas can be replicated elsewhere. Some of the people from larger third sector organisations bemoaned the fixation of funders for ‘new’ ideas and innovation, and a lack of opportunity to scale up proven ideas or replicate them in other areas.

Will Perrin and Martha Lane Fox made the case for new technology as a vital means of empowering both individuals and communities to become more active citizens. A notion that I would heartily support. Afterall, if it wasn’t for Twitter, I wouldn’t have found myself in 10 Downing Street in the first place.

This said, for my part I was acutely aware that, as the only Scottish representative around the table, that most of this policy area was devolved to Holyrood. So with my 3 minutes to advise the prime minister, I made the point that in Scotland some communities have already benefited greatly from a Community Right To Buy, and that it would indeed be a marvelous thing if it could be extended to cover the whole of the UK.

I also highlighted the Climate Challenge Fund as a Scottish example of an approach to funding neighbourhood led organisations that has put resources in the hands of community groups and allowed them to come up with a huge range of very unique, local responses to the global problem of climate change. I managed to get a quick plea in to Dave and Nick to see if they could persuade Alex Salmond to extend these ideas further – and perhaps extend the Libservatives ‘social investment bank’ to cover Scotland too.

Lastly, I also made the point that if Nick and Dave are serious about devolving power to the neighbourhood level, then they must be prepared for variations in public services, and sometimes for local residents groups to make mistakes. Will they baulk at the first media cry of ‘Post code lottery’ when something is perceived to go wrong?

And there I had to stop. But there were things I didn’t have the chance to say. Not least my concerns about accountability and participation. The best critique I’ve seen of the “Big Society” idea is that it’s like those self-service checkouts you get at supermarkets – the supermarkets tell you it’s a good idea, but people still choose to wait in the queues for the staffed checkouts as they feel they’re being hoodwinked. To many, it still seems preferable to have someone else work the complicated machines for you.

Similarly, will people want to participate in the Big Society at all? Some studies seem to suggest that they don’t really want to get too involved – they’d prefer it if public services “just worked”. How many people are desperate to take up the invitation to get involved in managing services, attending meetings & writing minutes? Like Oscar Wilde said, “The trouble with Socialism, is that it takes up too many evenings.” My inclination is that new web tools, used well, can make it easier for more folk to voice an opinion on local matters, as these tools do allow them to participate at a time and place that is convenient. Members of Greener Leith will know that this is something that we’ve always been interested in.

Secondly, whilst it’s assumed that small community organisations taking over the management of public assets or services is a good thing – how will the new management be held accountable over the long term? What happens if the community group can’t deliver? How will the government help communities that might not have the resources, or the skills, or the people willing to take advantage of their new found rights and powers? Will they find themselves excluded from the Big Society?  Will it really be cheaper than simply keeping services in the public sector? Safeguards need to be built in – and the devil is in the detail. And we haven’t seen that yet.

I couldn’t help but think that if we’re to see a new civic revival then we’ll need an investment in old school community development, adult education and a real commitment to making more local government information accessible and understandable. Without this, it will be hard to sustain that army of ‘community organisers.’

It was an interesting trip – and despite the reservations outlined above, it is significant that the coalition have decided to make this area the first ‘joint leadership’ policy announcement since they came to power. And most people there, it seems left in a spirit of optimism – hoping to see the promised civic revival come about in due course – even if it will have to filter through Holyrood to make any difference here. In the meantime, those classic shots you see on TV of the ministers assembled around the cabinet table will never look the same to me again (Yes, it does look bigger on TV.)

On the way out one participant wondered whether we’d be invited back in a few months time to review the governments progress on delivering their Big Society policies. Otherwise he asked, “what was the point?” Indeed, I agreed, and I never even managed to steal a teaspoon…