The Prime Minister’s restatement of the Big Society is a recognition that the idea has so far failed to resonate in many communities, because the reality of the cuts has hit hard, focusing attention on the loss of much-needed support for grassroots volunteers. We are still waiting to count the numbers of community development workers still in place after the cull in public sector jobs.
Westminster has been besotted with the concept of the community organiser, ever since former organiser Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. However, politicians risk ignoring a long British tradition of community development, embedded in communities across the UK and now under threat as local authority cuts begin to bite; here, Nick Beddow, chief executive of charity CDX (Community Development Exchange), sounds some warnings on how the big society could make matters worse, rather than better
The prime minister’s restatement of the Big Society is a recognition that the idea has so far failed to resonate in many communities, because the reality of the cuts has hit hard, focusing attention on the loss of much-needed support for grassroots volunteers. We are still waiting to count the numbers of community development workers still in place after the cull in public sector jobs.
Nevertheless, the announcement of 5,000 future community organisers is to be welcomed. We can only hope they will be ready to learn the hard lessons which community development workers have discovered after many years of helping to build a strong civil society.
Firstly, society can only be built from the firm foundations of strong and inclusive small societies. There are an amazing range of voluntary projects which offer their support to their own communities and the efforts of these groups deserve to be centre-stage in our national life. The relationships built by these active citizens are making a major impact on making community mean something.
But these very people are also facing a worrying time, as the cuts take away the support services which underpin them; small grants from councils, use of affordable venues and access to skilled help from community development workers are all under threat. Existing volunteers cannot be expected to turn themselves into full-time substitutes for specialist service providers. Community organisers will need to understand and respect the pressures on volunteers, and avoid the urge to heap more responsibilities onto hard-pressed people.
Secondly, community organisers will hopefully reach out to existing workers in neighbourhoods; as community development workers have discovered, new faces cannot be parachuted into a neighbourhood and expect to be trusted overnight. Partnership is a two-way street and has to be nurtured by proving ourselves to be committed to meeting the public’s needs at the public’s pace.
The biggest concern is that Big Society thinking does not yet seem to grasp that communities are complex phenomena; it is not easy to build cohesive communities where every section has a voice and is respected by all.
The degree of nurturing work within community development should not be underestimated – aggressive or highly confident voices can easily drown out minority voices or less forceful citizens. The new community organisers will hopefully reach out to experienced community workers to reflect on these challenges and develop their skills and awareness.
I hope that Big Society does not fall into the trap of rebranding something real and falsifying it. We have been promoting the idea of Our Society up in the north of England to emphasise that the ownership of civil society lies with its citizens, not with government. Our Society will evolve to meet the diverse needs of each community on the community’s terms.
Community organisers will need to seek the guidance of these communities if they are to be a really useful resource. Community development workers and existing community groups will be eager to work alongside community organisers if there is a clear understanding that communities are not organised from outside but from within; with the right support, communities develop themselves in their own diverse image.
With the loss of public sector services, and an increasing demand on weakened charities, the Big Society will remain in need of continual relaunching if the funding gap is not addressed. A strong civil society needs strong support, and let us all hope that the philanthropists celebrated by the government turn out to have deep and open pockets beyond the prosperous economic hotspots.
The Big Society will need not-so-secret millionaires to back up the hard work of unpaid volunteers.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.