Big Society Thoughts

Shane has some thoughts on the Big Society out where he lives in Bradford on Avon, they’re worth a read.  He argues that the Big Society is:

Local people taking control of their local facilities and making them work. The swimming pool as we know it will close. We need to choose if, we as a town, want to keep it. It needs to become our swimming pool, not the council’s. Big Society isn’t about closing council run facilities. They are going to close anyway. We can’t afford them. Big Society is a way of keeping them open.

For swimming pools in Bradford read libraries across Lewisham. On which, Antonio Rizzo (a manager in the library service) in response to the post about the proposal to close Blackheath library calls for the service and its users to:

1.build on what counts the most, that is the energy and passion you have for your library service,
2.ditch anything that is stopping us from growing and developing better services for residents, and
3.make the most of the common drive to engage with the local community that other agents share with us.

Shane’s call for social activism, for community take-over of services, seems more in tune with how these things can be given a hope of life than a return to the approaches that worked in 1999.

What worries me is less the transfer of assets – admittedly tricky in Blackheath’s case as the library is rented rather than owned – but whether our civic society is geared up for the slog of running services week in week out.  Shane’s right that passionate people do all the time, my son’s cricket club has those people at its heart, but we’re asking or expecting a big change if this is to be replicated in what have previously been mainstream services.

I’m reminded of a paper that Demos wrote a few years ago which estimated that there are about 1% of the population who are committed social activists.  For the Big Society to have a chance of saving swimming pools or libraries I think we may need a few more people.

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About Andrew Brown

I live in Lewisham, South East London, and spent 9 years as a Labour councillor in the borough between 1997 and 2006.
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9 Responses to Big Society Thoughts

  1. Great to see some words on the blog again!

    Libraries is an obvious service and one under pressure, but also one that comes with lots of support and passion. They play an important role in the community but the way we consume media has changed so rapidly they do have to adapt and communities will have to work hard to maintain them locally.

  2. Andrew Brown says:

    Well, as you can tell, I was provoked.

    As you say libraries are dearly loved as a local resource, even when they are underused. Post offices face the same dilemmas, universal consumption of their services is not what it was.

  3. Max Calò says:

    I agree with much of what you say. It’s plain impossible to run facilities that require constant staffage with volunteers, there are assets that require public investment to allow community groups to fulfill their role (and as you commented on Gallomanor some capital expenses that are way beyond any community group’s means).

    That said, users’ groups involvement is surely the way forward, and if some of the functions performed by staff can be replaced with volunteers then that allows either savings or expansion of services, but that’s small change compared to the bulk of the support.

  4. Andrew Brown says:

    I agree Max, user involvement / delivery may be the only way forward if some of the things that people value are to survive. I think there are probably models at work already, think about how much work volunteers do in nature reserves for example.

    But without a semblance of professional management, or the resources to have someone doing the organising it’ll be bloody hard work.

    And the speed at which people will have to pick up these services seems a real challenge too.

  5. Max Calò says:

    The kind of work done by volunteers in nature reserves is actually enjoyable, to run facilities day in and day out involves some repetitive and thankless tasks. Lollipop ladies for all their tenacity and commitment only turn up for 15 minutes, try staring at a pool for 6 hours. You want to be paid for that.

  6. I somewhat regret that the conversation has turned from communities making choices to the practicalities of running swimming pools…

    All of this may be true, but their are two very important issues:

    1. The BoA swimming pool will close unless a community group takes it over
    2. The community needs to make the decision about whether they can deal with the hassle not the county council

    It looks as though that is what they are planning.

    And the good news, on swimming pools at least, is that others have done this before as discovered by Patrick Butler in this guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/jul/21/society-daily

  7. Andrew Brown says:

    I take your point Shane, but the practicalities of running what were mainstream services surely have to sit alongside the ambitions of communities to do so.

    I had a meeting with a youth worker yesterday who was wondering whether the final act of the council youth work team would be to train up volunteers to take over the services, to which the answer may well be “yes”.

    I also recently heard the Third Sector Minister, Nick Hurd, talk about the government’s ambitions in this area and can see why they’ll be keen (initially at least) to remove what they call ‘bureaucracy’ around these services – fewer people needing CRB checks, less Health and Safety requirements, etc.. Whether doing so will unleash the latent ambitions that we’re supposed to have for taking on mainstream services at the pace the government are setting we’ll wait to see.

    In the end I’m quite supportive of community ownership and management of services, it’s your point that services which ‘we own’ that are good services, but not without oversight or on the fly.

  8. Max Calò says:

    Yes, Jesmond Pool is a common example, but as the article admits, Jesmond is a middle class area where articulate people with considerable time available put together a plan to run the pool.
    But first of all they set up a not for profit organisation, and therefore professionalized themselves, in fact much of the staff is paid up, although some volunteer (although any swimming club is largely run by voluteers, even in municipal and private pools).

    But I’d contrast that example with Greenwich Leisure which is also a not for profit but that unlike Jesmond started as a management buyout, they were already professionals, and they now run tens of pools across London, and not only in well off areas, but in deprived areas too.
    In the Guardian the journalist writes something I’m quite uncomfortable with:

    “Some community takeovers fail to get off the ground because, ultimately, residents actually don’t use it.”

    Frankly, although there surely are facilities that are not used as much as they should (just as Jesmond once was) I think that it may only be that rather than not being used those that are closed are often those used by communities that don’t have the luxury of a residents’ committee of retired barristers and Head Teachers that know how to:

    – convey to the local community why it’s important to fight for that asset;
    – put together a credible business plan;
    – work their way at Town Hall.

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