The Con-Dem government has gone live with Dav-Cam’s vision of Big Society. During the election campaign back in April & May this was touted by the Tories as something that we could all buy into. But then because no one was totally sure what they were actually being asked to do it all went just a little bit quiet. Two months on and DC is having another go at it and again people still aren’t quite sure what it’s all about. Unfortunately (for him) the looming budget cuts have added a healthy dose of cynicism to many of the critiques of this week’s launch. Is it really all about giving more say to local communities in determining their future? Or is it just about getting locals to step in and do things free that Councils have up to now had to fund? It’s most likely a bit of both. Over the years the Conservatives and Lib Dems have traditionally been more in favour of the local over the central (although perhaps not for the same reasons) and so it’s no wonder this slightly fuzzy idea has some cross-Cabinet appeal. But how might it play out at a local level in Twickenham?
The stated aims of DC’s “big soc” are to put more power and opportunity into people’s hands. Apparently this will involve:
1) Giving communities more powers (part of which is “to radically reform the planning system”, yes they actually say “radically”);
2) Encouraging people to take an active role in their communities (and remember kids, President Obama was a “community organiser” before heading off to Washington);
3) Transfering power from central to local government;
4) Supporting co-ops, charities, stuff like that;
5) Publishing a whole load of data, including crime stats.
What picture does that paint for you? Perhaps it involves city officials (including the mayor and the police chief) being directly elected by the people. Perhaps these officials then draw on the help of influential figures in the local community to provide valuable services which augment those of the local authority. Maybe these influential figures fund their own participation in these activities. And would this local celebrity be called Bruce Wayne and would that police chief just happen to be called Commissioner Gordon? No doubt, we’d all be there in the commissioner’s office at the City Police Station thanking Twick-man for saving the town from bad planning decisions.
In truth, most people who want to be involved in community matters already are. They’re generally a self selecting group. Twickenham, being an affluent suburb, already sees the members of the Twickerati involved in Riverside campaigns, running school PTAs, organising fetes, fun days & kids clubs and generally just getting on with things. Doing more of it, especially doing it instead of the Council, takes everything up a level in terms of time and funding commitments. And that can lead to the risk that over time the only players left in the game are those who have found a way to turn a profit and the real obsessives, and that’s not what it’s all about, surely?
So, if big society in little ol’ Twickenham is not about the bat signal shining out from the Regal House rooftop, then what might it actually look like? Maybe it’s time to have you say…