'Community Engagement and the Big Society' was the theme of a conference in Durham last September on which I reported in the January Newsletter. Soon afterwards one of the keynote speakers, Prof Phil Redmond, very publicly withdrew from a flagship Big Society project in Liverpool on the grounds that funding cuts had made delivery impossible. The Prime Minister has since re-launched the Big Society for the third time in May after the Cabinet Office minister responsible admitted that "We may have failed to articulate it clearly ... " So how difficult a concept can it be, and where is the Big Society now? Can it still be a meaningful proposition without substantial funding?
I therefore took the opportunity to represent our Society at a seminar on Big Society and Localism held in Ely in May, to learn from those who are already actively involved. Views were mixed but the conclusions were similar: anyone delivering services to the public, whether through local authorities, charities or whatever, has to engage with this agenda. There is no other. But what it really means and how (or whether) it will work is not yet clear.
Tony Burton, Director of Civic Voice, remained enthusiastic that newly-devolved powers to produce Local Plans and Lists of Assets would bring greater influence over planning decisions to local communities and Civic Societies such as ours, provided we engage with the Localism agenda; but much remains to be clarified over the coming year. On the other hand, Neil Stott is Chief Executive of Keystone Development Trust, which delivers social good while running businesses to pay for it, and while he agrees that Big Society is an attractive concept and Localism is an agenda with which Development Trusts have no choice but to engage, he doesn't yet see how they will add anything new to what the Trusts are already doing. Indeed it is precisely the poorer communities in need of public services who lack volunteers sufficiently rich in time and money to fill the void left by public spending cuts and the suspension of Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). But if the community does not engage, this will simply leave businesses to fill the void, raising the spectre of privatisation by the back door, cherry-picking the juicy bits and leaving the rest to wither.
This brings us to the new Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) which are joint bodies brought forward by local authorities but led by local businesses, which take the place of RDAs but without the substantial funding enjoyed by their predecessors. Alex Plant is the interim Strategic Director for a LEP covering Cambridge and Peterborough. He admitted that the loss of funding had led the relevant media to dismiss LEPs as 'talking shops' and 'toothless tigers'. Rather, Alex described the role of LE Ps as the re-balancing of the economy at local rather than regional level, between local authorities, businesses and the Third Sector, and setting local priorities for transport and infrastructure, economic development, employment and skills, housing, and so on. But to address these requirements without RDAs and the Regional Spatial Strategies will be challenging, particularly for matters which transcend local boundaries.
The picture which emerges from these different perspectives is that the Government spending cuts are driving a re-balancing of the economy, to be focused at local level through the LEPs and the Third Sector, but with outstanding uncertainties about how (or perhaps whether) the gaps left by the cuts will be filled. At its most basic, if the Government's spending cuts leave important services at risk, then the wherewithal to provide them will have to come from elsewhere, and that is perhaps what defines the Big Society. But defining the Big Society as whatever fills the void left by the retreating State does not define a solution, but is simply re-stating the problem. Little wonder that there are difficulties in articulation and comprehension. Then again, if we aren't part of the solution, are we part of the problem?.......... .. .in place of 'Passing the Buck' and NIMBYism?
From the foregoing standpoint, a way of gaining further insight into the Big Society might be to consider issues local to Ipswich and Suffolk, many of which were enumerated by Simon Cairns, Director of Suffolk Preservation Society in his presentation at our Society's AGM (which is reported more fully in this Newsletter). Both Simon and our own Chairman, Jack Chapman, made clear that both societies have interests in promoting respect for the past while shaping the future, and this involves drawing some difficult balances. The Suffolk countryside is distinctly subtle and hence susceptible to any development of any scale; but our economy is predicated on growth, which means more people demanding more houses, more jobs and more infrastructure. This chimes with the Ely seminar.
In the next ten years, much of our energy infrastructure will need to be replaced. In addition to the relentless growth in our demand for energy, many power stations fuelled by nuclear, coal and gas will reach the end of their operational life and will need to be replaced. And climate change will demand greater use of renewables such as wind and wave power, and more nuclear. There are already controversial proposals for wind turbine installations both on- and off-shore, not to mention incinerators for generating energy from waste as landfill becomes landfull! Interestingly, incinerators appear not to be part of the Localism agenda, since Kings Lynn appears destined to have one in spite of local protests, and Great Blakenham may well go the same way. Likewise nuclear power stations. But what of wind turbines, and more pylons carrying more power from Sizewell? The Government's answer to the latter appears to be to invite proposals for more aesthetically pleasing pylon designs. Many would prefer the cables to be buried, but would excavation in swathes as wide as a dual carriageway be any less detrimental to the countryside, quite apart from the expense? Who would welcome even higher energy bills?
But doesn't this point to the real problem, that no one is prepared to take responsibility for the consequences of the choices we make? For years we have asked successive governments for more and better services but lower taxes. And we expect them to solve the conundrum. They in turn have perhaps offered the Big Society as the 'solution' -"if you want it, you provide it and pay for it, because the public purse is empty." Likewise we want more energy, but we don't want the countryside spoilt by pylons of turbines. So who will take responsibility when the lights go out? Just as we want greater mobility and travel opportunities, but no more roads or airport runways. But who takes the blame for the resulting congestion and the fragility of our transport network when arteries become blocked?
In other words, preservation can quickly turn into stagnation unless a proper balance is drawn in shaping the future. Simon Cairns urged that the greatest threat to the Suffolk landscape is complacency. The Ely seminar warns that if communities do not engage in Localism then business interests may well dictate the future. Any gardener knows that nature is good at creating wilderness, but cultivation requires intervention to control pests and diseases in order to produce a valuable harvest. Light-touch regulation seemed to create wealth, but this was illusory. The 'help yourselves' bonus culture enjoyed by the financial services industry has given way to the 'help yourselves' agenda of the Big Society. In paying for that mistake perhaps we will re-discover what elected governments are really for, and take more collective responsibility for the consequences of our choices rather than passing the buck, whether to the Government, to our neighbours, or to the next generation.
Or perhaps our idea of democracy itself will need to move on.