Guest post: A front row seat in the Big Society

One of the things that research has identified any number of times in the past is the occasionally difficult, often distant and occasionally brilliant relationship between voluntary organisations and local government. If the Big Society is going to work I reckon it’s the third type of relationship that we’re going to need in spades…so my guest blogger today is Daniel Ratchford, Strategic Director of Environment and Leisure in the London Borough of Sutton. (Declaration: Daniel also steps out with one of my colleagues here at NCVO) As you probably now know, Sutton is one of the four pilot areas for the Big Society. It would be great if you use this blog to respond to Daniel so that we can understand each others concerns and aspirations.


A front row seat in the Big Society

danielYou might have seen the back of my head on Newsnight this week.  I was sitting on the front row when David Cameron made his much-reported Big Society speech in Liverpool.  Sutton is one of the fab four Big Society “vanguard communities”, and we were there to set out our ideas.

Many commentators this week have written the Big Society off as mere feel good sentiment, or big government by another name.  But we’re more optimistic.  In Sutton we’ve long held the view that it’s the man and woman on the street who need the freedom and power to help themselves and their communities.  Because of this we’ve managed to preserve a good old fashioned sense of community.  Sutton is brimming with clubs and societies and we have a very active voluntary sector.

To bring the Big Society to life we won’t be expecting massive new investment, nor will we wait for an army of advisers to be parachuted in from government departments (although we’ve been promised one or two).  We all know the resources simply aren’t there.  Instead the coalition government has asked us a simple question: what rules need to change so that we can make it easier for people to make a difference?  And they’ve given a firm commitment to address the answers.

So we will be talking to our community, and groups across London, to agree which bureaucratic barriers should be dismantled to release a surge of groups and individuals willing to step forward and do the achingly practical things that build a stronger everyday society.

The first things we will look at are how government can give people more influence on local transport decisions, train a new generation of young community organisers, give communities the power to green their neighbourhoods, and give people a greater say in local health provision.

This isn’t just theory or rhetoric.  We’ve got a great track record in Sutton of extending local participation and developing active communities: our work with schools and businesses to encourage sustainable travel; our work with residents and the voluntary sector in Hackbridge to create a low carbon sustainable suburb; our work with the police and voluntary groups to create our new Sutton Life Centre.  These are all areas where we are enabling people to be participants in public services, rather than consumers of them, by helping to remove government red tape and by making it much easier to get involved.  Indeed, our long standing mission in Sutton has been “To build a community in which all can take part and all can take pride”, which we think sums up the philosophy behind the Big Society pretty well.

My favourite quote from Liverpool was Francis Maude’s conclusion that “The Big Society is a big idea – not a big plan”.  It’s certainly an idea that we’ve had some success with in Sutton, and we’re genuinely excited about the prospects for more.

Daniel Ratchford is Strategic Director of Environment and Leisure at the London Borough of Sutton; and a Trustee of Keep Britain Tidy

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