Can trust and support deliver a Real Big Society?

I’ve lost count of the number of government initiatives and funding regimes that I’ve seen during my time in the voluntary sector.

From Manpower Services Commission (MSC) to Youth Opportunities Programme, from Opportunities for Volunteers to European Social Fund and from Single Regeneration Budget to New Deal for Communities.

They all had one thing in common; they were usually the government’s response to what was seen as a particular social problem at the time. The difficulty lies in the fact that the problems they were meant to tackle were longstanding and, often, deep rooted. Most required a cultural shift in order to inculcate the values and practices they espoused. A shift that sees people as assets and not either shirkers or strivers; a gross oversimplification and a divisive one at that.

For myself, now at an age when many of my peers have opted for cardigan and slippers, I have recently embarked on my sixth career in writing and public speaking. So I like to think that I’m in the latter of these two categories. Yet, when I left Army Apprentice School to join the regular army at 18, my report read: ‘Daligan tends to take the easy way out unless the effort will bring speedy personal reward.’ Not a description that anyone, who has witnessed my 35 years in the voluntary sector, would recognise. The army, where I didn’t feel trusted, was a very different environment from the voluntary sector, where I, very obviously, was. I fought against the former but thrived in the latter. It was the same person in each case; one who responded to encouragement and praise but rebelled against negativity. Rocket science, it isn’t.

Despite the longer-term timescale of some of these schemes, they were often insignificant in comparison to the ingrained problems they were meant to tackle and were subject to budgetary constraints that had nothing to do with the needs of those on them. In the case of the MSC, for example, a full-time wage was replaced by a part-time one, which meant even more juggling than usual on the part of the voluntary organisations making use of them.

But these job creation schemes did have their successes. At the city farm in Leeds, for example, there were a good percentage of people leaving to get into more permanent occupation. Despite this, the whole project was built and run over a number of years using people on the scheme. When I left, a piece of unused land had been turned into a thriving community project with six permanent staff. An unemployed single parent when I started, I went on to forge a successful career in the voluntary sector and beyond. You could argue that I might have anyway and, indeed, I might. But I prefer to think it was down to the environment in which I found myself.

‘I read somewhere recently that the prime minister genuinely believes that if it works for those at the top in society, it is good for all of us. If that is so, he couldn’t be more wrong’

Despite the problems, are there any common factors in the numerous community schemes that I’ve been involved in? Well, yes there are. Whether it was city farms, some now celebrating their 40th anniversaries, helping people who were homeless and unemployed to build their own sustainable homes or working on Planning for Real exercises, the common factor was practical involvement by those on the receiving end in solving their own problems. They, after all, have to live with them on a day-to-day basis and tend to have very clear views on what needs to be done. My own experience is that, given the resources, they are usually able to deliver. Indeed, they did so in abundance when, in 1991, a group of people in north London with special needs, with the help of other volunteers, built their own horticultural training centre.

Now, unfortunately, this bottom up approach seems to be at odds with some of those who exert power. I read somewhere recently that the prime minister genuinely believes that if it works for those at the top in society, it is good for all of us. If that is so, he couldn’t be more wrong. Does anyone directly involved in helping people to help themselves believe that? I doubt it. Perhaps a little research into the history of mutual self-help in the UK might be of help in this matter.

What are those common factors? It’s quite straightforward. The first is real and direct involvement on the part of those on the receiving end in tackling the problems that beset them. The second, committed staff and the bond of trust between the two. Then a supportive and wider framework within which they all operate. It also requires adequate resources, properly targeted. Finally, a more ‘cradle to grave’ approach during which people are supported so that they can grow and then go on and help others – just as I was on the employment creation scheme all those years ago.

Hopefully we can reweave the fabric of our communities in the image of those who live there. We could even call it a Real Big Society. Now wouldn’t that be something worth working for?


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Omotolani Sulu
Omotolani Sulu
9 years ago

I read this with great admiration and respect for Mike. I do hope he can share his tips of good practice and also repeat this with our job creation scheme for 50+ group and help save this very much needed project from closure

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