Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Big Society

What is the Big Society? It is the idea that David Cameron has put at the heart of his agenda but critics say they don't understand what it means and that the public don't get it either.

In a nutshell, it is about getting more people to do more for their community. Why is it that in some cases brilliant ideas and successful charities apparently spring from nowhere and grow whereas in others no amount of government help seems able break the cycle of social breakdown?

The answer is that in virtually every single case, successful community groups start with just one single person who initiates action and takes a stand. They soon find that they are not alone and that there are other like minded people in their community who will lend a hand and support their lead. Then it grows further. When other people see that it is possible to make a difference and that things can change, they get involved too and so there is a snowball effect and the result is a stronger society.

But if government intervenes too much and has an "initiative" to try to deal with every problem, then people retreat from their responsibilities to their community. An attitude can develop which says it’s the government's job to make things happen. People start to think they can't make a difference anymore. That has been the story of the last twenty years and we need to reverse the trend.

There are some great examples of community action here in Cornwall. From youth groups like Searchlight in Redruth to social projects that provide work for former offenders or help the long term unemployed back in to work.

One way to help such groups grow lies in smarter procurement by the public sector. There is nothing new about “outsourcing” work, but, in the past, too much money has been hoovered up by huge companies such as Serco and Capita who want as much money for as little work as possible. Imagine if we could change that so that small and local social enterprises who give something back to the community were awarded those contracts instead?

A few weeks ago I visited the Foyer at Carn Brea. It takes young people who have had a hard start in life and creates a community where they live in the same block of flats and support one another. As part of their presentation Shaun, one of the residents, read a poem. Another resident, Sophie, had discovered it while doing some research on the internet. It was called the Power of One and included the lines:

“One smile begins a friendship. One candle wipes out darkness. One laugh will conquer gloom. One step must start each journey. One life can make the difference.”

This is the essence of the Big Society and, whatever the critics might say, people like Shaun and Sophie understand it.