Although the Big Society has been on people’s lips for some years now, I am still occasionally asked what it means and, in particular, what it has got to do with the delivery of public services.
Last week, I came across an example in West Dorset which I think illustrated perfectly the answer to both of these questions.
The occasion in question was a discussion in Beaminster, where there is a group of people very actively involved in promoting what is called “community resilience”.
This sounds like a fancy name – but it is actually a matter of straightforward commonsense.
If there is a major event – say, for example, a really serious flood (all too imaginable after the last few months), emergency services will obviously be stretched to the limit – and the worse the event gets, the more difficult it will be for them to respond effectively to it. If the flood is bad enough to close down water and electricity in the south west, block major roads, and cause widespread disruption, the blue light operators will have their work cut out just dealing with the most urgent emergencies.
If public expenditure were unlimited (as there was once an illusion that it would be), one could solve this problem by having a vast reserve capacity at county or regional level of professionals who were hardly ever needed but were ready to be called out in an emergency.
Now that realism about public finances has broken out again, everyone can see that this kind of solution is not going to work any time soon. So what we need instead is the capacity for communities to help themselves under these extreme circumstances, trading on the voluntary effort of members of the Big Society who are normally getting on with their other lives but who are organised and ready to put their knowledge and skills at the service of the local community when the need arises.
The discussion that I attended illustrated very clearly that we are in the foothills of this ascent at present. There is a lot more work to do before we can honestly claim that Britain’s small towns and villages are well equipped to deal with emergencies in this way. But it is vastly encouraging that there is at least a growing recognition of the need to move in this direction.
Hats off to those who are making the effort to turn this recognition into a reality!
Western Gazette, 27 May 2013