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February 23, 2011

Give it a chance

Amidst the ever growing band of Big Society doubters and cynics, occasionally some unexpected voices of support can be heard and sometimes these come from unlikely places. Brian Wilson, former MP and long time advocate of the community ownership model that has transformed patterns of land ownership in the Western Isles, argues that that there may yet be something in it and cautions against being too dismissive

Brian Wilson, West Highland Free Press

Maybe it is a sign of going soft, but I am not as dismissive of David Cameron’s Big Society as is fashionably correct. At least it’s better than John Mayor’s Cones Hotline or Margaret Thatcher’s view that “there is no such thing as society”, big or little.

Indeed, I reckon that community land ownership, community co-operatives, community energy, community enterprise, housing associations, credit unions, to mention a few, all fit comfortably within the Big Society.  And, since I have spent much of my life advocating all of the above, why should I be against them just because David Cameron might be in favour?

It occurs to me that the West Highlands and Islands, where this philosophy is well advanced, might be prepared to take advantage of the Big Society (and its bank) while the rest of the country is pretending not to understand what it is about.  If it is about the empowerment of communities to shape their own destiny, then bring it on – and the money that goes with it.

Neither is the concept relevant only in rural areas.  Nobody who has observed the intractable nature of urban problems can believe that handed-down policies, however benignly intended by local councils or anyone else, offer the only solution.  Empowering people to identify their own needs and then respond to them is essential, and a lot of that goes on already.

In a different economic climate, Mr Cameron’s attempt to parcel some of this into a Big Society/Big Idea might have stood a chance.  Now it is doomed to ridicule because it is against a background of savage cuts, which flow from a more familiar brand of Tory ideology.  When every area of useful public spending is being cut, from Coastguards to care centres to classroom assistants, it will be difficult to persuade anyone that the Big Society is more than another cheapskate device.

If Mr Cameron is going to demonstrate sincerity, he must recognise that each component part of his vision costs money to start with, even if it is then dependent on community effort to sustain.  That is why the Big Society Bank is an interesting idea – but only if it makes the delivery of outcomes easier, rather than becoming just another strand in the nightmarish complexities of putting any funding package together.

So let us be generous of spirit and try to extract the best from Mr Cameron’s crusade, rather than assume the worst.  Apart from anything else, it would do no harm to enshrine the same concept into political thinking for the future, no matter who is in power and perhaps in more favourable economic circumstances.  Empowering communities by investing relatively little money is a good, big idea for any government or party.