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Some Reflections on ‘The Big Society’….

A few people have asked me what my thoughts are on the whole ‘Big Society’ concept being promoted by the new British government. I have attended a couple of events over the last week that have given me space to think about it all, so here I am with a few reflections. Last week I attended the Community Land Trust conference, and yesterday I was at the launch of the Sustainable Development Commission’s ‘The Future is Local’ report. So, for those new to the idea, the ‘Big Society’ idea is David Cameron’s big idea, focusing on localism, returning power to local communities, making central government smaller and shifting its role to the devolution of power wherever possible, calling for “a massive, radical redistribution of power”. Here he is talking about it….

At the CLT conference, the new Housing Minister, Grant Shapps MP, gave a rousing talk about how the government is committed to CLTs (albeit in a slightly altered version called ‘Local Housing Trusts’), and wants to see them everywhere. They want to see communities taking charge of creating their own housing, raising their own financing and building housing which is in community ownership in perpetuity. All sounds great.

One part that was slightly alarming was when he said that in the forthcoming ‘Localism Bill’, there will be a provision that if 90% of a community supports a development, it will be able to bypass the planning process. This raises a number of questions. 90% of which population? Street? Neighbourhood? Parish? Town? How do they vote? Then, even if you did get 90% support, is it really, at a time where the need is to promote zero carbon housing, sensible to allow housing to bypass planning? Will it just lead to rubbish housing?

At the ‘Future is Local’ launch yesterday, the various speakers offered different insights to the whole Big Society discussion. Will Day of the SDC said that the aim of the report is the explore “integrated area-based approaches to upgrading infrastructure”. The thinking goes like this: we have x million homes that need to be retrofitted, the government has no money (well, not much), and we need to promote retrofitting and use that to also create energy security, quality of life, a sustainable economy (fascinating term that…) and jobs. The idea is that a piecemeal approach isn’t anywhere near as cost-effective, the ideal is to work street-by-street and to use that also as an opportunity to engage communities.

Richard McCarthy of the Department for Community and Local Government spoke next, starting by talking about why localism is important. It is about, he said, giving people the freedom and space to develop their own responses, free of government regulation and interference. For him, the Big Society represents “an opportunity for things to happen at a local level”. The new government plans to get rid of Regional Development Agencies and of Regional Spatial Strategies, and to reprioritise Local Plans, and for those plans to focus on neighbourhood led plans.

Mike Reardon of the Greater Manchester Environment Commission spoke about the work they are doing there to retrofit the city. He said that they are looking at the process trying to work out how to maximise the economic benefits to the city of the retrofitting work, working on, as he put it, “the engine of retrofitting”. The challenges they have faced, he said, are their own capacity and capability, realising that there is a significant skills gap, and that they need a new workforce capable of delivering it, hence they are planning to create “A Low Carbon Centre of Excellence” (sock darning MScs…).

Ged Edwards of Sustainable Blacon Ltd talked about the fascinating work they are involved with in a suburb of Chester, which offered some insights into what a post-EDAP Transition initiative might look like. Blacon is an area of significant disadvantage, and Sustainable Blacon are focusing on 4 things, green transport, green energy, green spaces and green social enterprises. They are set up as a not-for-profit, with 3 functions, firstly offering services, secondly working as a regeneration consultancy, and lastly promoting Sustainable Blacon. Their board is made up of resident stakeholders, organisational stakeholders, and expert advisors.

The last, and the most challenging speaker, was Philip Blond of Respublica, who was interviewed recently here at Transition Culture. Blond is one of the architects of the Big Society concept, and has the ear of David Cameron, for whom he acts as a great inspiration. I took a lot of notes of his talk, which I will reproduce here because it will inform some of the following discussion. What, he asked, is the great difficulty with all this talk of localism? The fact that there is not actually much society, society has become very disassociated.

Very few people out there are ready to engage, the poorest people are 2.5 times more likely to be lonely than the wealthiest. People, he continued, no longer associate, there has been a diminution of social capital, the different classes mix less often than they used to. So how do we get to a more associated society? The answer, he argued, is to begin where people are at.

What we need is a Big Society, and that requires something for people to associate with first. What do we do when there is no collective identity? How might we, in an increasingly fractured society, get people to form together in groups? The environmental movement has, he argued, gone about things in a very dangerous way. It took an issue of concern to all, and captured just one part of the political spectrum which meant that those on the Right and in the Centre had no interest in it. Secondly it has failed to communicate carbon reduction in a way that anyone can visualise and care about.

The solution, he proposed, is to begin where people are. If their idea of environmental work is to beautify their place , or plant trees, then start there. What people will gather around and form groups around will vary between communities, it might be crime, or it might be beautifying an ugly place. These projects can then become hubs for other projects. The state’s role, he said, is to “facilitate civil association”. The aim should be to create different groups with different intents, and then provide quick wins for these groups.. the role of civil servants then becomes to facilitate this.

In many ways, the new political landscape which I hope I have captured in the above snapshots looks like one in which Transition should feel instinctively at home. Indeed, I do think that the ‘Big Society’ agenda creates a space in which Transition initiatives should really be stepping up to the plate, and seizing it with both hands. Local community-led responses, delivering the low carbon agenda from the ground up, facilitating inward investment, returning power to local government and so on, all offers a new context that Transition initiatives should seize with both hands. There is a very real difference though, between the concepts of ‘localism’ and ‘localisation’.

Localism is about the devolution of power, a devolving of decision making to the lower levels, to communities and to local government. Localisation is about shifting the focus of economic activity to local markets, to meeting local needs, where possible, though local production. Localism certainly creates a more conducive context within which localisation can flourish, but localism, as promoted by the current administration, still takes place within the wider context of globalised economic growth, which in turn drives energy dependency and carbon emissions.

I do however have some problems with this new localism agenda. As I listened to Blond’s talk, I thought, well is it actually true that we live in a country with not much society, that society has now disassociated? I remember just before the election hearing Eddie Izzard, who had just run all around the country, doing 50-something marathons for charity. He said he didn’t believe in ‘Broken Britain’.. everywhere he had gone people were much more community focused than he had expected. My experience from visiting Transition initiatives is that community is there, everywhere, sometimes more obvious than other places, but the point is that community will organise when it wants to, it doesn’t need permission from government.

In the short film at the top of this post, Cameron says “I don’t believe that civil society springs up of its own accord”. Well there are thousands of community organisations around the country, run mostly by volunteers, Transition initiatives, Low Carbon Communities, Greening groups and so on, none of them waited for permission from government. They certainly sprang up of their own accord. What matters is for the State to offer such projects meaningful support, and to remove the obstacles strewn in their paths.

Perhaps they might say, for example, that for communities wanting to install community owned renewables through a community ESCO, or similar model, they will put up 50% of the money, matching whatever the community raises through community share options or bonds. Perhaps the £10-15,000 loans soon to be offered to homeowners for retrofits on a ‘Pay-As-You-Save’ basis could also be offered for individuals so as to raise the initial capital for a community energy company. Perhaps government might give communities first refusal on land zoned for development, and allow the use of compulsory purchase orders by community groups for sites they want to develop. Perhaps they might introduce something like the Low Carbon Fund which has run so successfully in Scotland, to which community groups can apply for anywhere between £1,000 and £1,000,000 for low carbon projects.

One of the bits I struggle with is the idea that government’s role is to devolve responsibility to communities, to devolve leadership. In one way, I love it. Of course communities have a key role to play in Transition in the wider sense, and need to be given that responsibility and trusted to take some leadership. Transition has long argued that without active communities taking leadership, national decarbonisation/resilience building will struggle. However, climate change, and the need to cut emissions sharply, also very much need strong government. In Germany and Denmark, emissions have been cut by decisive and focused government action, while also empowering communities.

We need the empowerment of communities, the enabling of community responses, but we also need strong, imaginative government based on a strong agenda of slashing the nation’s emissions. I’m not sure that we have that. For example, I live in Devon. Almost every planning application for wind farms are refused by the predominantly conservative Council. So, if the move then is towards local communities being able to decide whether they want wind farms or not, we’ll probably end up with even less. Without strong government, we will never get anywhere near the nation’s targets for installed wind capacity. We need both.

Of course the cynic might point out that the reason for the Big Society is the sweeping cuts in public spending that are only just beginning. If you replace the word ‘localism’ with ‘privatisation’, it is not that different in some ways from the Thatcher government’s agenda. There is a challenge within it around what people are actually capable of doing in their spare time. Working full time, and also running a school? Working, managing a family, looking after an ailing relative, and running a Community Land Trust? Of course there are incredible people out there who do that, but it will have its limits unless people are supported in other ways too.

Having said that though, I welcome the potential that the Big Society represents. It offers a context within which Transition can really step up to the plate. It explicitly states that it wants to see communities stepping up and taking control, and that can only be to the good. It has lots of hooks onto which Transition groups can hang their projects, and it also raises lots of questions which Transition initiatives have hard-won experience they can feed into.

We need inspired, motivated communities taking ownership and responsibility, but over that, I would argue, we also need to be laying localisation, seeing that, for example, retrofitting Manchester could stimulate not just new trainings, but also a wide range of other potential businesses and livelihoods. While localism is a great first step, it will be when localisation is woven in too that we really start to get somewhere interesting. When the Big Society meets the Local Economy, then we’re really moving, and it is that localisation piece of the puzzle that Transition brings to this discussion. This brings us to the need to redefine resilience, not as a state of maximum preparedness for the ghastly, but as a desired state, as a positive. But that’s a subject for a later post…

Anyway, I would love to hear your thoughts on this…

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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