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February 23, 2011

Big Society ploughing on

Despite scepticism raining down from all quarters on his Big Society project, David Cameron seems intent on staying the distance.  A longstanding commitment to recruit 5,000 community organisers took a big leap forward last week with the award of the contract to deliver this ambitious plan.  This was always going to be a tall order but it’s good news that the Government has chosen to go with those who have the experience and know-how on the ground –  anything else would have ended in failure

Locality, the charity formed by the merger of Bassac and the Development Trusts Association, has been awarded a £15m contract to deliver the government’s community organisers programme.

The programme, part of the Conservative Party’s general election manifesto, will recruit and train 5,000 community organisers to help local people develop community projects in deprived areas in England.

Five hundred of these will be senior community organisers, who will be trained and paid £20,000 each for their first year. A further 4,500 will be part-time voluntary organisers.

A statement from the Cabinet Office said the programme was about “catalysing community action at a neighbourhood level”. It said organisers would also help communities take advantage of big society initiatives such as the right to buy, enabling groups to take over public assets for community use, and the right to bid, which will allow them to try to take over the running of some public services.

A Locality spokeswoman confirmed that £10m of the £15m would be spent on paying the bursaries and £5m would cover the other costs of running the scheme. She said the first projects would base community organisers in existing third sector organisations in 10 areas in England, listed below, and would begin in April.

Among the organisations whose applications to run the scheme were unsuccessful were the Community Development Foundation, Citizens UK and the Civil Society Alliance, a group whose members include the Workers’ Educational Association, Navca, the Women’s Institute, Democracy Matters and Community Matters.

Neil Jameson, executive director of Citizens UK, said: “Our principle for the past 22 years has been never to apply for government money, but this contract looked like it was written for us so we abandoned that principle and bid for it. “We were surprised not to have won it, but I think this was because our bid was too expensive. It’s damaging for the vocation of community organising that the government has gone for a cheaper bid, rather than one from an organisation with experience.”

Jameson said the tender document produced by the Cabinet Office for organisations hoping to run the scheme was “very imaginative”.

One of its ideas was to run a scheme based on the principles of the American community organiser Saul Alinsky and the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.

Titus Alexander, convenor of Democracy Matters, said: “All of the members of the Civil Society Alliance recognise that they will have to work together to make the programme a success. One big challenge for the government will be that the community organisers may well be challenging local authorities over spending cuts.”

Steve Wyler, chief executive-designate of Locality, said: “This is an exciting opportunity for everyone – from national government to local groups and individuals – to work together and help ordinary people achieve extraordinary things and shape the future of their localities.”

The community organisers programme, which will run until 2015, will account for a large proportion of Locality’s funding. Accounts filed with the Charity Commission show that in 2009/10 Bassac had an income of £2.6m and the DTA’s income was £5.6m.

The first 10 projects will operate in:
– Barton Hill Settlement, Bristol
– Birmingham Settlement, Birmingham
– Cambridge House, south London
– Community Links, east London
– Goodwin Development Trust, Hull
– Keystone Development Trust, Norfolk
– Kirkgate Arts, Cumbria
– Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester
– Penwith Community Development Trust, Cornwall
– St Peter’s Partnerships, Tameside, Greater Manchester