This week saw the official launch of the new UK Coalition Government’s “Big Society” programme, which is supposed to transform society by mobilising an army of volunteers. The scepticism which has greeted this launch from some quarters is perhaps understandable, born as it is out of frustration with the multitude of initiatives which have passed by over the years without any of them seeming to make an appreciable difference.
I was brought up short this week, when I visited Grimsby and Cleethorpes. I’ve been doing a piece of work for North East Lincolnshire Council (which covers Grimsby & Cleethorpes, among other places). I was invited by Richard Bellamy, the Chair of the Grimsby RSA Network, to attend their monthly meeting at a hotel in Cleethorpes. At this meeting, I met Claire Wollington, who manages Contract Lincs, a community interest company which has been spun out of the district’s social housing agency, Shoreline, to run contracts for them and to act as an employment agency, placing local unemployed people into work. I was impressed, both by Claire’s obvious dynamism and enthusiasm, and by her achievements, both at Contract Lincs and at Shoreline. I was all the more impressed, because Contract Lincs is doing just the kinds of things I have spent large parts of my career advocating, but of which I have seen all too few examples of successful implementation. It struck me at the time, that those who are searching for models of how the Big Society might be made to work, could do worse than look at Contract Lincs.
Both at the RSA Network meeting, and during a visit the following day, I then got talking to Richard Bellamy about the project which is taking up most of his time, the redevelopment of Freeman Street Market in Grimsby. And, it was then that I started to learn something about the organisation that owns the market, and a large part of the centre of the town, The Enrolled Freemen of Grimsby. The Freeman were the local burgesses who purchased the town from King John in 1201, and they have played a prominent role in the town ever since. Currently, they are leading an effort to regenerate the area around the Freeman Street Market, and, as part of the area masterplan, have begun by remodelling redundant space in the covered market to create a Skills Centre. This is a work in progress, as can be seen from the photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnpopham/sets/72157624111327002/, but it already includes office space for Contract Lincs, a Gallery space, a woodworking workshop, and is developing a restaurant and a media studio (see progress below).
Among many others, I have exerted a lot of time and energy over the years, trying to create sustainable organisations that can underpin community and economic development, with varied degrees of success. And all this time, I was unaware of an organisation capable of providing just such a structure, and doing this kind of work, which has existed for over 800 years. And, it seems to me that the combination of the Freemen of Grimsby and Contract Lincs could be a really powerful force for good.
And, it could just be that this is what the Big Society is all about.