Who’s going to mow the grass?

I’ve spent much of the last week on a mini-tour (Camden, Lewisham, St Albans and SuffolkHigh Peaks to come) of events and conferences at which I have been speaking about the Big Society. It’s been great talking to people about ideas, practicalities and ultimately the realities that face us as we try and intelligently respond to ‘reductions’ in public spending. If you’re interested, here is a prezi version and a powerpoint version of the slides I’ve been using. Or not in the case of Suffolk, where I was unexpectedly plonked in the middle of 100 people with no AV, no lecturn…

I’ve heard cynicism, optimism and eagerness in equal amounts. I reckon a lot of people are prepared to get out there and roll their sleeves up, though they aren’t sure how many people are going to join them. Clearly I have been talking to people the researchers describe as ‘pro-social‘: so whilst all had heard of the Big Society, I reckon two-thirds had no idea what it means.

The example I used to try and get to the nub of the argument was cutting the grass; or rather, cutting grass verges that dont ‘belong’ to somebody. In short, in an age where we are hoping to rebalance the roles of the state, the individual (self help and voluntary action) and the market, whose responsibility will it be to carry out activities that are currently the preserve of the state?

Cutting grass verges (and also, it turned out, related activities such as clearing snow from paths and roads) is currently within the remit of local authorities, contracted out for I presume five figure sums. But if we can no longer afford to pay for such services, what to do? They may well be apocryphal, but news sites tell tales of well-meaning residents stopped from cutting grass verges for reasons of health and safety: people might fall over if the verges are at an angle, they may be close to busy roads, and so on (someone also suggested the council might object if you do the stripes the wrong way; I hope this was a joke). So what does cutting the grass say about how we make the Big Society happen?

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I had an interesting discussion with a group in Suffolk, where a range of issues were highlighted. There was a view that grass cutting exemplified how the state had taken on roles that 40 years ago were ‘our job’. Colin argued that the state had disempowered communities by taking on such roles – ‘where does the county council get the right to contract out the right to cut the grass in my village?’.  A related comment was that ‘only stuff that communities are not able to do for themselves should be pushed upwards to local councils‘. Broadly speaking, proponents of greater control for individuals and communities want to change the balance from ‘Am I allowed to do this?‘ to ‘I am allowed to do this until I am stopped’. Another colleague observed that for this to work, ‘the definition of the word volunteer is going to [have to] change – it has to include the ability to make your own decisions’.

I also heard more cautious voices: some people wont want to take on this sort of responsibility leading to the sort of postcode lottery we’ve all heard of (‘a 2, 3 or 4 tier society‘). Others wondered about whether communities have the capacity to organise themselves: someone said that ‘the biggest anxiety I have about this is the lack of coordination: who is going to take responsibility?’. Most depressing were the stories of those discouraged from contributing to the common good: ‘people only cut one half of this [the verge in front of a semi-detatched house] because they are so worried about upsetting their neighbour; someone else told me that ‘I used to cut the grass but I got so much aggravation for doing this‘.

So what to make of such views and experiences? Our discussion highlighted the need for organising; the need for the sort of cultural and behavioural change that will take a generation, not a parliament; the latent desire to help and to do things that exists; and the need to puncture the membrane of government at all levels so that we can reclaim and relearn how to do these things for ourselves. The queston of what do we mean by ‘ourselves’ is clearly crucial: do we take responsibility as individuals, or collectively? (NB I keep meaning to read more of Elinor Ostrom’s work on common pool resouces to help me think this stuff through)

Finally, I went into these discussions thinking it would be great if voluntary organisations or social enterprises could do some of this organising: not sure where I heard it, but the example would be that the organisation organised residents to do the work, and maybe serviced their lawn mowers cheaply? (Alternatively, Mow and Grow was cited as a great social enterprise) All good: but a couple of people asked me why are we mowing the verges in the first place? Turn them into meadows; or even vegetable patches. Whatever we do with such green spaces, they exemplify the sort of deliberation, and the geographical scale, which the Big Society is going to based upon.

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding, Director of Public Policy and Volunteering, leads NCVO's volunteering, policy, research and campaigning work in the UK and internationally. With lead responsibility for shaping the external environment for the voluntary sector, he blogs about the big issues facing voluntary organisations.

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