Delivering the ' Big Society '

Published on Wednesday, 28 July 2010 01:00
Written by Sean Brennan

The words ‘Big Society’ don’t mean a great deal to some people.  Some commentators wonder whether a big society will damage fairness, others whether our culture of risk aversion will smother it, if it’s a covert route to oversize cuts or whether our highly complex public sector will be impossible to alter anyway

Most worryingly some people, who have grown up in a time of ever growing centralisation and growth, are astonished at the idea that the state might do less and they might do more.  

But as the leader of a council that is to be London’s test bed for the Big Society, I would say the announcement is a cause for real optimism.  We mustn’t prematurely write the Big Society off as another feel good sentiment or big government by another name.   

In Sutton we have long held the view that it’s the man and woman on the street who need the freedom and power to help themselves and their communities.  Because of this we have managed to preserve a good old fashioned sense of community.  Sutton is brimming with clubs and societies and we have a very active voluntary sector.  

For years we’ve been encouraging unfashionable community activism through projects like Smarter Travel Sutton, the Hackbridge sustainable community, the Sutton Life Centre and our Take Part Take Pride community season.  

To bring the Big Society to life we won’t be expecting massive new investment, nor will we wait for an army of advisers to be parachuted in from government departments.  We all know the resources simply aren’t there.  

Instead the coalition government has asked us a simple question; what rules need to change so that we can make it easier for people to make a difference?  They have given a firm commitment to address the answers.

So we will be talking to our community to agree which bureaucratic barriers should be dismantled to release a surge of groups and individuals willing to step forward and do the achingly practical things that build a stronger everyday society.  

The first things we will look at are how government can give people more influence on local transport decisions, train a new generation of young community organisers, give communities the power to green their neighbourhoods and give people a greater say in local health provision.  

This is just the beginning, but it marks an important cultural shift in which we can all take part.  Together we can put more power and decision making in the hands of local people.

We can encourage people to volunteer, the voluntary sector can be paid to run certain services, businesses can be much more involved in their local community.  We can reduce the cost of expensive services and we can stimulate greater public sector entrepreneurialism.  

As momentum gathers we should then revisit the best of the dormant Sustainable Communities Act ideas and look at how communities can raise and spend money locally.  

In the meantime we can all do our bit to make this work.  We can enable people to be participants in public services, rather than consumers of them by helping to remove government red tape and by making it much easier to get involved.

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