North West Employers’ Big Society Conference – 2nd November 2010

Today I am live blogging the North West Employers’ Big Society Conference at the Reebok Stadium Bolton.

There are about 80 people gathered here from across the North-West and beyond.

Proceedings were kicked off by Francis Davis, Policy Advisor to Greg Clark MP at the Department for Communities and Local Government. Francis drew compliments from a number of contributors for at last bringing some clarity to the Big Society agenda. He talked about how we should not expect a consistent Government approach to the Big Society, because it is about Government stepping back and allowing communities to take action for themselves. Different Government Departments will interpret this differently.

Some of the examples of action that Francis gave included:

  • There will be 5,000 community organisers
  • Communities First will make between £50m and £100m grants
  • “Pilots” to turn parts of public sector into mutuals
  • DfE – developing national citizens’ service
  • Ministry of Justice instructed staff to “Big Society” every business process
  • DCLG – removed all targets, introduced “Barrier Busting” teams, removing regional tier to return money to local authorities and power to local people.

Francis gave an example of how the Big Society Bank might work. He talked about a housing estate where arson was costing £1m a year to deal with. A plan could be made for drastically reducing this cost by implementing measures led by the community. A social enterprise could be established to implement these measures, with a loan for start up costs provided by the Big Society Bank. Once the savings to the public purse had been realised, 50% of the saving could be paid to the social enterprise to fund local community activities and to repay its loan.

The second speaker was Sarah Longlands Director of Policy for the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES). Sarah talked about the contradictions of the Big Society agenda, with its emphasis on community empowerment at a time when resources were being withdrawn from some community initiatives. She considered it will be a struggle to ensure the poorest are not left behind. Some of the issues she highlighted were:

  • What is the link with local economies?
  • Supporting enterprise and entrepreneurship
  • Circulation of money in local economies – social enterprises are more likely to spend their income in local economies
  • Welfare reform – need to make work and enterprise pay (and where are the jobs going to come from?) Public sector traditionally been a bridge to the labour market
  • Challenges of economic growth – need to make sure economic development benefits the hardest pressed communities

Sarah considered it vital that the Regional Growth Fund and the new Local Economic Partnerships fully understand the potential for social enterprise to step in areas where the commercial sector is weak and the local state is being rolled back.

Some of the questions which Sarah considered needed urgently to be answered were:

  • How do we enable every one to participate in the Big Society?
  • Do we all have time to do this?
  • Are local organisations always open and fair?
  • Can citizens and communities really fix their own problems? – there will always be a role for specialists
  • What is role of state and local government?
  • Will big business take over services and does this matter?
  • Will a smaller state make society bigger?
  • What if all the money dries up?
  • What happens to accountability? Where will the buck stop?

The first speaker after the morning coffee break was Kevin Douglas, Chief Executive of Eden District Council, who talked about the district’s Big Society Vanguard area.

Kevin Douglas

Kevin talked about how the passion and vision of Rory Stewart, the local MP had driven the adoption of Eden as a Big Society Vanguard, and how Rory continues to push things forward. He also said that this was the only one of many speaking invitations that he had accepted since Eden had been declared a Big Society Vanguard.

Eden has clustered its communities into groups of Parishes under the headings of Upper Eden, Heart of Eden, and Lyvennet Valley. The Council provides a small amount of financial support and officer resources, but the community plans which these groups have drawn up are very much driven by community priorities, and the Council does not lead the process. A principal source of finance is the parish council precept. Eden is the only one of the four Vanguard areas where senior civil servants from the Department of Communities and Local Government are working directly with the community groups and not through the council.

The main initiatives being pursued by the communities are:

  • Upper Eden – Develop and manage own community centre
  • Lyvennet – Affordable Housing Scheme (on brownfield site – 22 units)
  • Lyvennet – Community-owned pub
  • Lyvennet – Anaerobic Digester – looking to develop sustainable electricity
  • Heart of Eden – Renewable Energy Project
  • Upper Eden – Tourism / Walking programme

Kevin identified the main barriers to the community organisations getting their plans implemented. These are:

  • Bureaucracy – public organisations having to meet centrally-driven targets. In the past, government would not put trust in small organisations
  • Finance – the vast majority of what communities want to do costs. They might be able to do it cheaper, but there is still a cost
  • Experience / Knowledge – Communities need to know where they can go for specialist advice. Local government can sign-post.

Kevin said he needed to address the impact of the CSR spending cuts on the district and how this affects the Big Society plans. The Council is required to find 9% savings in three years, and this has led it to decide to withdraw from certain services including some Public Toilets, some Tourism Information Centres, and some forms of Corporate Support. It will also make it harder to provide financial support to community groups. Obviously, there is a potential for community groups to step in to provide some of these services, but the approach the council has been taking has been dictated by community priorities, and this highlights a key Big Society dilemma in that the local community may not see these services as priorities.

Some of the key lessons emerging, even at this early stages, from the Vanguard are:

  • Procedures and barriers to local action are overwhelming – this wears down the enthusiasm of activists;
  • Access to information is a key barrier;
  • Community Priorities v Council Priorities – there are some areas of conflict which are difficult to resolve. eg. the community wants to do some minor construction schemes which are low on the council’s priorities, partly because of cost. The community wants to do them itself cheaper and more quickly;
  • Finance – Pump Priming – Trying to provide small amounts of finance which can pump-prime or be used as match-funding for other sources. This may dry up following the CSR cuts;
  • Staffed support – this is getting more difficult to provide;
  • Volunteer sustainability – what happens when volunteers move on? We need succession planning to avoid crucial initiatives failing in the future.

Some of the key challenges for the Big Society have been identified as:

  • CSR v Big Society – The fact that the CSR cuts and Big Society come together creates a great deal of cynicism. This puts people off participating
  • Localisation v Central Support – Who arbitrates on issues when communities have different priorities?
  • Opportunity v Excuse – Is it an opportunity to do new things or an excuse for the state to stop doing things?

The final speaker of the morning was Richard Caulfield, Chief Executive of Voluntary Sector North West. Richard started with a word of caution about the negative language he was hearing from some circles about public sector workers. He said that there were many dedicated, hard working, people in the public sector, and now was not the time to be opening divisions between the sectors. While it may not necessarily be true that “we are all in this together”, it is true that the best way of getting out of the current situation is for everyone, in all sectors, to make common cause.

Richard also pointed to anger in the voluntary sector caused by two key factors. The first was that Government had decided to ban the term “Third Sector”. At a time when they need the sector’s help, Government should not be telling it what it should be calling itself. The second cause for anger was the impression being given by Government that the activity described as “Big Society” is something new. People in the Third Sector have been doing this sort of stuff for a very long time, and they don’t take kindly to having this fact ignored.

The sector has also been concerned about some of the messages coming from Government and its agencies. For instance, “Your Square Mile”, the flagship initiative of the Big Society Network, looks like a very southern, metropolitan initiative which does not play well in the North, and is particularly irrelevant to rural areas. It also appears that Ministers are relaxed with the idea that the Big Society might create inequalities, or at least not reduce inequality. This is profoundly scary to many people in the Third Sector who have dedicated their lives to reducing inequality.  There are also some big contradictions going on, in that the drive to save money seems to be resulting in consolidation and mergers in the public sector, which appear likely to result in large commissioning contracts. Big commissions are the enemy of localism, such contracts will not go to the small community groups which are supposed to be at the heart of the Big Society.

Richard thought that Government seems to be suggesting that there are good and bad forms of volunteering. If this is the case, we need to know which is which. The whole Big Society agenda risks changing the nature of volunteering, as most people who came into the Third Sector did so because they have a passion and an interest, not because they want to deliver public services.  Initiatives such as the Metropolitan Police suggesting that, in future, entry to the police force would be dependent on applicants have spent 18 months volunteering as a special constable, risk creating a form of compulsory volunteering. And various suggestions of reward schemes for volunteers veer dangerously close to payments systems, and if you are being paid for your efforts you need at least the minimum wage.

Richard took Lord Nat Wei to task for, on the one hand, accusing the voluntary sector of being too dependent on public funding, and, on the other hand, encouraging it to deliver more public services. The Big Society Network wants to encourage Participatory Budgeting, why can’t we have Participatory Cutting, involving people in making decisions about what needs to be cut? Why can’t public investment in the voluntary sector be seen as just that, investment? If the Big Society is about empowering people to do things for themselves, the Richard with embrace it. But there is too much of a suspicion that it is tied up in the cuts agenda and a negative view about the voluntary sector.

Encouraging the Grass to Grow at the ReeboK Stadium

Following a very fine lunch, Graeme Clark, Peterborough City Council’s lead officer for Citizen Power took to the platform. Graeme described the work going on in Peterborough, under the Citizen Power banner, in partnership with the Arts Council and the RSA. The Council wants to have a different kind of conversation with the people of the City. Peterborough’s citizens do not appear to have a great sense of belonging to their neighbourhoods or the city. There is a low level of capacity to respond to challenges. So the Council and its partners want to engender a new form of citizenship with people more engaged, pro-social, resourceful, self-reliant, resilient and creative.

Three themes underpin the programme:

  • attachment – to place and each other
  • participation
  • innovation – identifying new ways of doing things which make the most of people’s capacities

There are 7 strands to the programme, which include – Civic Commons, a new space for debate and action, fostering Capacity Building, a Seeding ground for ideas, Enabling citizens to engage in bigger-picture issues, and building a Positive reputation for Peterborough.

Another important strand is the Peterborough Curriculum which aims to connect what young people learn in school with what happens in their community, and to use Peterborough as a learning tool. This will promote: Participation in and of the learning community; Attachment to the city; and Innovation in ways of doing things

Another strand is Making Social Media Social which is developing an on-line platform & social media tools to: Improve community participation; Build a sustainable network of community websites; Provide services to the Citizen Power programme; and bring together People looking for things to do & people to help. This can be seen at

The last speaker of the day was Jessica Crowe, of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, whose focus was on the role of the councillor in the Big Society. She began by talking about the situation in the London Borough of Hackney where she lives. A few years ago, there were riots outside council meetings when the authority had to make decisions about some major spending cuts. Now, when even bigger cuts are being discussed, there are no such incidents. This is because the authority has built trust with its residents such that they now trust it to make the right decisions.

Trust is a very important issue in the relationship between councillors and the people they represent. Jessica presented the case against councillors being part of the Big Society, which is:

  • They are part of the local state;
  • they can be seen as gatekeepers rather than facilitators;
  • they operate under bureaucratic principals;
  • they are old-fashioned (the average age of a councillor is 59)
  • they are unrepresentative (low electoral turnout)

The case FOR councillors in the Big Society is:

  • They are the ultimate local involved citizens;
  • they are able to challenge public servants;
  • they stand up for their community;
  • they can be enablers, facilitators and champions;
  • they are the democratic wing of the Big Society

It is time to welcome transparency. Tools like are putting the power in the hands of ordinary citizens to interrogate what happens behind the scenes in public bodies and other organisations. Local government should welcome this, but transparency should apply to anyone who spends public money, including schools, the NHS and voluntary groups. But we also need to be open to risk and plan for what happens when things go wrong. If we are to let 1000 flowers bloom, what happens when some of those flowers fail to take root.

Jessica cited the case of a cemetery in Warrington which was threatened with closure due to its £1m a year running costs. The local community managed to take it over, run it for £85,000 a year, and create 2,000 new burial plots.

Jessica finished with an appeal for the wider use of social media to help councillors and others understand the plethora and diversity of initiatives taking place in their communities.

A thought-provoking and encouraging day finished with delegates in their table groups putting forward their thoughts on the day. There was widespread support for the Big Society agenda, tinged with scepticism about how it might work, and no little fear about the challenges ahead.


Here are videos of the sessions. Sorry about the quality, they were shot from the back of the room. Also, some kind of power issue wiped out the video of Francis Davis’s talk.

Q & A Session following Francis Davis, Dept. of Communities & Local Government

Sarah Longlands of CLES

Kevin Douglas, CEO of Eden District Council

Richard Caulfield, Voluntary Sector North West

Graeme Clark, Peterborough City Council

Jessica Crowe, Centre for Public Scrutiny

Closing Summary

2 thoughts on “North West Employers’ Big Society Conference – 2nd November 2010

  1. Good work John. Thanks for sharing.

    I was particularly struck by the point about ‘attachment to place and others’. In many cases I think this is precisely the wrong place to start. It leads us to a kind of moralistic preaching about duty to engage. Citizenship as service. As duty.

    What if we helped people to connect firstly with their own lives, their own ambition, their own aspirations and their own responsibility for progress? A connectedness with self. A clarity around self interest is in my experience an essential precursor to attachment to ‘place’ or ‘people’. Once people are clear on their personal priorities and goals, and believe that the place and the people around them will take them seriously and will help – then engagement and community inevitably follows.

    We have to start with ‘self interest’, rightly understood, and weave that into community and collective interest.

  2. Pingback: Are we any further forward? « Our Society

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