Matt Wood and Miguel Mendonca join those trying to make sense of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ concept
The “Big Society” concept that David Cameron has been promoting since before the general election has not been received enthusiastically so far. Some people think it is a cover for cuts – a way of getting the public to deliver their own services – and many others, including Conservatives, just don’t get it. So how to explain it to people?
One way would be to look at the those who are already doing it. The Converging World is just one among many thousands of UK charities, NGOs, community and voluntary organisations where, as Cameron advocates, “people step forward not sit back, where people come together to make life better.”
So, the Big Society is not a new idea nor is it a Conservative idea. Our interpretation of David Cameron’s speeches is that Big Society means wider community participation in society, and in delivering services. In other words, the state cannot do everything, and nor should it.
It is often heard that people don’t have time to do voluntary work, but many non-profits, TCW included, have more volunteer offers than they can accomodate. Several of our staff started working for us as volunteers. Maybe it’s just because we’re a charity, but maybe not. Many people don’t want to work full-time or sit at home on benefits doing nothing. People want to be involved in something that does good, not just makes money. In doing so, they reap the benefits: job opportunities, more experience, networking, social interaction and work satisfaction.
The other critical benefit that may emerge from a successful Big Society agenda is that people may truly come to feel like citizens again, part of a community. Participation is something natural to human societies, but the level of collaboration that is required for making significant societal shifts in the name of sustainability will require a high level of activity, and goodwill. We have been fairly passive in this regard for some time, and in fact the previous Conservative government was famous for Mrs Thatcher’s individualist dictum that “There is no such thing as society”. Many social changes of the last few decades have fractured the community aspect of neighbourhoods. Given that we can meet virtually all of our needs from the supermarket, community is something that we have to work at. They are mostly communities of interest, geographically dispersed, sometimes existing solely in cyberspace.
However, communities of interest on energy issues are flourishing, relocalising community to the neighbourhood. The Converging World works with a dozen enthusiastic green community groups within our free community energy programme. The vast majority of these people are volunteers. Many work full-time and give up their evenings and weekends to organise projects helping people become more sustainable. Their efforts are humbling, and their motivation is the wider community benefit: More sustainable neighbourhoods, more renewable energy, combating fuel poverty and climate change, greater community cohesion.
TCW would like to help more community groups across the UK. That’s why we run the energy programme, developing written guidance to help communities prepare sustainable energy plans identifying the potential for energy efficiency and renewable energy; and also the Community Hub, our online project database and community sustainability resource. In Bristol we will be running our workshop programme several times a year for local community groups.
Community activity of this kind – hands-on, accessible, effective – has so many benefits that it can indeed help deliver David Cameron’s ideal of moving “from unchecked individualism to national unity and purpose”. But it can do more, it can ignite a sense of ownership over our fates, a sense that if we choose to reshape our towns, cities and countryside to be more sustainable, we can think it up and do it – as long as the government plays a facilitating role. A true shift to a more hands-on society could indeed reshape our relationships with our government and each other, and it is exciting to think how far it could go. But for now we must concentrate on effective collaboration, and explore what the Big Society idea can achieve today.
Disclaimer: The Converging World is not affiliated with any political party. Opinions expressed above are those of the authors.