Social Media Surgery Tour

Thanks to the lovely people at the RSA I am about to embark on a Social Media Surgeries tour, mainly of the North of England, but a couple that fall outside that definition.

If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll know what a Social Media Surgery is. If you haven’t then go away for a bit and read what the amazing Nick Booth, who really invented the Social Media Surgery, has to say about them. In essence, a Social Media Surgery is an informal session when nice people who understand how to use social media get together with people from voluntary & community and arts organisations to help them start out or improve their usage of free internet tools to communicate their messages and reach out to people they want to work with.

I’ve agreed with the RSA a list of places where we want to establish new Social Media Surgeries. This list is based on places where myself or RSA staff (or both) have contacts who we are fairly confident will take the Surgeries on, develop them, and make them a regular feature of the local infrastructure. There are nine venues on the list at the moment, and we are still looking for a tenth, so feel free to volunteer your area, if you think you can make it work. We are also open to persuasion to change the list if someone can make a compelling case for their area, but, this is where we are starting, and, if an area wants to join the list, somewhere else will have to drop out.

  • Blackburn
  • Darlington
  • Grimsby
  • Harrogate
  • Hull
  • Liverpool
  • Manchester (for community groups & RSA members)
  • Mansfield
  • Peterborough (not in the north of England)

The plans for nearly all the areas are not very well advanced as yet, so if you’ve got ideas for where and how we should do it in your area, please pitch in. In any case, we really need as many volunteer “surgeons” (advisers) as possible. Don’t worry if you’ve never done anything like this before, a key feature of Social Media Surgeries is that surgeons and “patients” often learn together, and we very often manage to ensure that two surgeons can work together so a more experience surgeon can help a new-comer out.

The important part about all this, is that these Surgeries need to be sustainable. I’ll probably only be able to help with setting up the first (and perhaps a second) event. Experience with the Surgeries that Nick has set up in Birmingham, and that I have worked on in Yorkshire, suggest that it needs at least one enthusiastic lead surgeon (and preferably a group) to take on the organising of the surgeries and coordinating surgeons diaries, venue etc in each area. I don’t want to raise expectations in areas and dash them by not being able to sustain an on-going regular event, so please bear that in mind when volunteering to pile in.

Well, if all that has not put you off, please comment below if you want to be involved in a Surgery in your area.

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An Inspirational Two Days in Eden

Rory's Reivers 1

I’ve just spent an inspirational two days in the District of Eden in Cumbria, most of it in the beautiful village of Great Asby. I was there for two days of events, the first was the Big Society Information Exchange, which I have already blogged about here, day two was largely about the Cumbria Broadband Champions event. I’ve posted the videos from this event below.

I have to say that I came away from Great Asby feeling elated, energised and optimistic. As I said in the previous post, I retain doubts about the ability of the Big Society agenda to improve the lives of the most disadvantaged in society, but, I am an optimist at heart, and determined to do what I can to join in the effort to empower everyone in every community to achieve what is important to them. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen how it can be done in Eden. Yes, it is a Big Society Vanguard area, and, no, not every area is going to get the support that Eden is getting. And, not every area has an MP like Rory Stewart who is galvanising everybody, at all levels from the senior civil service to the smallest community group, to pull together around the Big Society banner. Every community is different, but I think that already a lot has been achieved in Eden and lessons are emerging. It was really encouraging (if not a little unnerving) to see the numbers of people who turned out on both days to cram into a tiny village hall and talk about their passions. We need to capture this spirit and spread it around, and we probably need to clone Rory Stewart, and the likes of Libby Bateman, who is an amazing dynamo, making things happen on the ground.

gab10_2

Day two was not exclusively about Eden, as Rural Broadband Champions came from throughout Cumbria to talk about their priorities for the Cumbrian Rural Broadband pilot, which looks like it will bring about £10 to £15 million of Government money to help solve connectivity problems in the county’s rural communities. We heard from Barry Forde, the designer of the CLEO (Cumbria & Lancashire Education Online) network, about how there can be fibre cables in surprising places that might make it easier to connect rural locations than we might imagine, and we heard from Miles Mandleson and John Bevan about the Great Asby Broadband network, which is solving the connectivity issue in the host village, and working towards its objective to provide fibre to the home (FTTH) for all its residents.

At the end of the day, community representatives presented the results of their discussions about broadband needs in their area. These were powerful testimonies about their struggles to get the connectivity that many of us take for granted, and their determination to ensure the pilot is used as an opportunity to make a step change towards “future-proof” connections, not short term fixes that will be obsolete in a few years time.  Rural communities need the sort of services (eg. Telehealth and Telecare) that next generation broadband can bring even more than their urban counterparts, and there is a strong feeling that the time is overdue to start delivering them.

I think the rural broadband pilots could be a real test for the Big Society. It is evident from Cumbria that there are community groups out there ready and willing to deliver community-based solutions to their local connectivity needs. As we heard, Great Asby Broadband is already doing it, but, there are also many other vested interests in the broadband world, including some very big corporations who might fight to secure Government subsidies for their own plans, which may or may nor fit in with community aspirations. If Big Society is about breaking through public bureaucracy in the interests of getting things done in the community, then, surely this must apply also to private vested interests where they stand in the way of local communities getting what is right for them.

The Cumbrian Rural Broadband Champions have spoken. Lets hope someone is listening.

Videos from the day

Rory Stewart MP introduces the day, and interviews Barry Forde

More from Barry Forde

Miles Mandelson, Great Asby Broadband

John Bevan, Great Asby Broadband

Miles Mandelson, Great Asby Broadband (again)

Mike Kiely & Robert Ling of Broadband Delivery UK

Simon Jones, Cisco

Nicky Getgood, Talk About Local

Questions and Answers

Feedback from Communities

Rory Stewart MP sums up


Eden Big Society Information Exchange

Eden1

Yesterday, I was privileged to be part of the first Eden Big Society Information Exchange. During the day, probably around 200 people gathered in the small village hall in the Cumbrian village of Great Asby. It was really interesting to see the Big Society in action, as the dynamic and charismatic local MP, Rory Stewart, galvanised the senior civil servants and agency managers, who he had persuaded to leave their coseted Whitehall worlds, into earnest discussion about how Government might help communities to achieve their ambitions.

Eden3

It was a really interesting process, a bit chaotic at times, owing to the large numbers of people in a small hall, but, ultimately quite inspiring. It remains a concern of mine as to whether Big Society can be done this way everywhere. Eden is a Vanguard Area, and Rory Stewart is very persuasive, I can’t see teams of high flying civil servants descending on every community in the country, and I also wonder what would happen if you try this in some of the more disadvantaged and / or socially and ethnically diverse areas. But, it seems to me that Eden is making real progress in working out how Big Society might be implemented.

Eden2

You can see more of the photos I took at the event here.

The day started with Rory Stewart MP introducing the objectives, and then handing over to a number of senior civil servants and national agency representatives who were there to see how the might help local people to achieve their Big Society objectives. Here is the video of that session.

Here is the video of the afternoon panel session:

And some scenes from the round table discussions

Some archived live video

http://qik.com/video/17700644

http://qik.com/video/17703083

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 http://www.citizenpower.co.uk.

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 http://www.helpmeinvestigate.com/ 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.

Videos

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


Twitter Gritter

The weather is getting colder, and, even though it’s still October, there have already been some #uksnow tweets on Twitter.

Sandwell Council Gritter in Birmingham in mid-summer

When I was in the Big Society Vanguard area of Eden Valley, recently, we were talking about the real difficulties which heavy snow causes in that area, which is in England’s most sparsely populated constituency. Last winter, people were snowed in for days, cut off from services and shops, and no one was able to get through to them. And people experienced real difficulties getting information about which roads were clear, which had been gritted, and when. This caused further difficulties in that people sometimes set off on journeys and then came to a section of road that wasn’t gritted and got stuck.

During this conversation, I mentioned the “Twitter Gritter” initiative, started by the wonderful Dan Slee at Walsall Council. Last winter Dan was giving real-time information on Twitter as gritters went out about which routes were being cleared. So, I made a mental note to speak to Dan about how he does this, what technology is involved, and how it might be replicated elsewhere.

So, yesterday, on arriving at the Beyond 2010 conference in Birmingham, I spied Dan across the room, and resolved to quiz him about just how he does it. And this produced a pretty amazing revelation. Dan told me that there is no expensive technology involved. The gritter driver simply texts or emails him as they are about to set out on a route and he puts the information out on Twitter.

This is one of those examples where really simple ideas don’t get spread, when the solution is so straightforward and effective. I had assumed that more people weren’t doing it because it involved some kind of expensive solution, linking GPS devices on gritting lorries with a control centre and online mapping. But, no, some of the best ideas are the most simple ones. And this is yet another example of the ability of the internet and social media to take offline information and amplify it.

This could be another classic Big Society initiative. Dan is employed by Walsall Council, but, it seems to me that there is no reason why local volunteer co-ordinators couldn’t be appointed to receive texts or emails from gritter drivers and output the information to Twitter, Facebook, hyeprlocal websites, and text messaging networks.

We can do this, can’t we?

Explaining the Big Society

People are still saying they don’t understand what the Big Society is about, despite attempts to explain it from the likes of David Cameron, in his conference speech yesterday, and Lord Nat Wei in his blog. Julian Dobson has been raising the level of debate, and there has been some high quality to and fro on the Big Society in the North Forum.

Still people are saying they don’t understand it. I really don’t think the mainstream media are helping on this. I was struck by this quote from an article in the “Evening Standard”:

….ours is a nation that pokes fun at those who do try to make a difference. From Dad’s Army to Citizen Smith to the Vicar of Dibley, we mock those who attempt things for the common good.

http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23885680-enough-talk-about-the-big-society—its-time-for-action.do

There was also an item on “Newsnight” a few months ago which just set out to ridicule the whole thing.

So, I’ve had an idea. “The Apprentice” has just returned to our TV screens, with teams of obnoxious, self-obsessed, self-promoters, scratching each other’s eyes out in an effort to avoid the fatal finger of the blessed Lord Sugar. Why not adapt this format, so we have teams of people wanting to do good for their communities competing to implement the best (Big Society) community initiatives? And, to make it more effective, I think the activities of each weekly programme should take place in the same community, so it is possible to measure the impact of the actions, and demonstrate how one community can grow a series of projects which engage local people and grow community capacity.

I am not sure if the “you’re fired” element would be appropriate in this variant of the format. But, then again, perhaps it would. If you’re not effectively doing good for the community, then you’re out. Step aside and leave it to those who CAN do it.

The main benefit of this is that other communities would be able to see the Big Society in action and transfer the lessons to their own neighbourhoods.

Any TV producers up for this?

Big Society Community Noticeboards – Part 4

Just a quick post to update anyone interested on where the Big Society in the North has got with the Big Society Community Noticeboard.

Thanks to Paul Webster, we’ve taken another big step towards the Big Society Community Noticeboard, which is intended to collect information from offline groups, collate it via the web, and output it to places where offline people can see it.

We have some way to go before we can make a reality of this, but we’ve made a start, and it works like this.

You can call iPadio from any phone on 0203 384 2144 & enter the PIN code 4455. You can then record a message which will be uploaded onto the web, and, after moderation by me, appear here http://www.ipadio.com/phlogs/bsitnorth

Paul has done a bit of RSS trickery which means that the iPadio recordings are pulled through to appear on a Big Society in the North Noticeboard here http://bsitnorth.tumblr.com/

iPadio uses Spinvox automatically to transcribe the first minute of all recordings, and this provides the text that appears on the Noticeboard. The transcription is not that good unless you speak very clearly.

As I say, this is a very early prototype, and the really big challenge is going to be to output the information onto local community noticeboards. That is going to need displays in communities, and a way of localising information to appear on particular screens.

It would be useful, however, if we could start to put the word out and try to get some offline groups using it.. We will need to re-think if it really takes off, because I am currently having to moderate each individual recording.

Since writing this original post, I have been fortunate enough to visit the village of Wray and get a real-life demonstration of the Community Noticeboard in the village post office, delivered to me by no less than @cyberdoyle herself. It’s in the video below. I think this is definitely an idea worth replicating.

Twenty-First Century Domesday Book

I don’t really have time to watch much TV, for a long time, the only TV I have really seen is late night repeats of “QI”, “Have I Got News for You”, and “Mock The Week” on Dave. Those are the kinds of programmes I like, and it is good that they are on when I’m around, but I’m not sure they bear 15 or 20 repeat watchings each. That is why the BBC iPlayer is so good, I am firmly of the opinion that 99% of the decent TV programmes made in the UK are made by the BBC, and so I could happily live with only the iPlayer for company and no other TV channels available.

The iPlayer means I can find quality TV programmes and watch them when is convenient to me. I am fascinated by history, and it has been a pleasure this week to catch up with the first two episodes of the BBC series “The Normans”. Watching episode 2 this evening, I was struck by the description of William the Conqueror sending out “men with weapons accompanied by men with quills and parchment” to collect the information that went into the Domesday Book. A thought was sparked in me by the mention of the last question which was asked by the Domesday Book inquisitors, namely: “Can more be had than is had?”, which was about the potential for extracting more taxes from the people.

This led me to thinking about the work we are doing on the Big Society in the North, and in particular, in seeking to develop Big Society Community Noticeboards.  It’s probably a bit grandiose to think of it like this, but this endeavour is a bit like a 21st Century Domesday Book. We don’t have any resources at all for this work at the moment, and we certainly don’t have people to send out to collect information, whether or not they are armed with weapons or parchment. So, we are forced at the moment to use free technologies and social media, seeking to plug in the offline communities at one end, and output information to the offline at the other end. In-between, we are piecing together bits of technology like an iPadio channel (here), which means that people can phone in community information, and a Tumblr noticeboard here (thanks to Paul Webster for this) which outputs the information in a readable format.

These are our modern day equivalents of men with weapons and parchment.  And, in the context of the Big Society, we are again asking the question “can more be had than is had”, but we are not talking about taxes here, we are talking about community activity. Can we encourage more people to get involved in community activities. Our 21st Century Domesday Book is an audit of community capacity.

Leeds 2030 Vision and the Big Society

Last night I attended a workshop on the “Vision for Leeds in 2030”. I’m sure we’ve all been to things like this, lots of men in suits sitting around talking about USPs (unique selling points) and landmark buildings, etc., etc, Well, this one was different. Firstly, about a third of the group were women (not good enough, though!), secondly, only one man was wearing a suit (and he apologised for it), and thirdly, there was hardly any of the usual “visioning twaddle”. Instead, a theme emerged from the evening which was that successful cities (and successful communities of any kind) are about human relationships. We talked about needing to create spaces, physical and virtual, where people can interact in informal ways without agendas, and how that can lead to the long-term evolution of places where people want to be, primarily because they know their neighbours and fellow citizens, want to interact with them, and want to build collective spirit and understanding. I found this immensely encouraging, and I hope it is taken account of more widely. I believe it is especially important in a city like Leeds which is such a place of contradictions, with one of the most vibrant and thriving enterprise economies in the north of England existing alongside some of the poorest communities anywhere in the country. This kind of approach could lead to the creation of conditions where the people of Leeds can put their collective brain power to the task of solving the city’s problems and building on its strengths.

I also thought the event was important in demonstrating how the “Big Society” philosophy is starting to influence the way people think. There was a lot of talk about how we need to stop planning, strategising and theorising, and just get on and do stuff.

Two examples in particular came up. One was about the Leeds Mayor’s Show, which used to be the biggest Mayoral parade in the country outside London, with communities and groups from all over the city vying to produce the best float, and the whole city turning out to cheer them on. This was effectively killed off when the policy of the police charging for their services at events was introduced, and policing costs made it unviable. This policy makes all sorts of communal events difficult to stage, and, if the Big Society is to be made a reality, we need to find a way to go back to how it used to be.

The other issue that was raised was the fact that Leeds Bradford Airport is not connected to the railway network, despite being separated by three fields from the Leeds – Harrogate railway line. Surely, the obstacles that have prevented this connection can be overcome in the spirit of the Big Society.

Empty Spaces in Railway Stations

As I travel the country I see increasing evidence of empty spaces in stations which are not being filled. I believe these could be put to community use, and help to turn stations into more thriving entities as well as making rail travel a more pleasant experience.

I have created a Flickr group to collect evidence about these empty spaces. Please take a photo of the empty space and upload it here with the name of the station. If possible, please photograph any “to let” boards with information on how we might contact the agent.