The Icing on the Community Cake

Surrey's Big Society

Author: Alex Thomson, in the MJ   |  

The Big Society means different things to different people. Many stress its civic activism, others the ‘nudges’ government may have to make to facilitate its successful execution, and some have concentrated on how it will play out in times of constrained financial circumstance. Yet for all the debate, the term has remained rather confused in the public mindset ? with the focus on party political discussions over cuts, rather than honing in concrete examples of the Big Society in action. Since the successes or failings of the Big Society must be judged on reactions in the streets of ordinary towns and villages over and above the debating chambers of Westminster, this is no good thing.

To help rectify this, Localis ? in partnership with Surrey Strategic Partnership ? has recently published ‘Surrey’s Big Society’ (the latest pamphlet in our Big Society series) outlining how various challenges have been addressed in that particular county. Surrey has seen this time as an opportunity to deal with some of their most difficult social problems in new, innovative and creative ways. It is worthwhile flagging up some of these exciting examples, and how they may serve as pointers to resolving contemporary challenges in innovative ways. Certainly local authorities have much to gain by considering the Big Society in practice, rather than just in theory.

Surrey has a vibrant and active third sector or ‘civil society’. There are thousands of community groups, innovative charities and thriving social enterprises as well as active individuals and philanthropists. Couple this with the county council – a local authority that is willing to engage and listen to new ideas, and work with those within the third sector – and you have some important building blocks for any successful Big Society.

Surrey suggests that the Big Society is not just about volunteering and individual generosity, it’s also about how things can be done differently. Public services need to ‘open up’ to allow a healthy variety of approaches to prosper. Doing so, the pamphlet illustrates, will allow new business models such as Central Surrey Health and Surrey Community Film Unit to flourish, and also has much to offer local charities such as Halow. Importantly, the Big Society changes the role of the state ? from a prescriptive to a guiding force ? but it does not, despite attempts to suggest otherwise, erode it completely.

Halow is a prime example of both the Big Society in practice, and its longevity. The charity supports over 120 young people with learning disabilities to have the same life choices and chances as any other young person and relies on 45 active, committed and passionate volunteers. Like many thousands of charities and social enterprises across the country, Halow was doing the Big Society well before David Cameron coined the phrase. Since 2006 they have enabled young people with learning and physical disabilities to live happy, independent lives. As Halow shows therefore, the Big Society often doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but builds upon existing societal bonds and structures.

On a larger scale, Central Surrey Health (CSH) has shown how not-for-profit co-operatives can reinvigorate established services. The social enterprise, run by the 750 nursing and therapy staff it employs, last year created over œ5 in ‘social value’ for every œ1 spent by commissioners on children with complex needs. As a social enterprise, CSH does not distribute its profits, and any savings it makes are put back into service provision. The Big Society is not therefore about cutting costs or skimming profits off the top, but providing a better, more collaborative service. With greater control certainly comes responsibility, but the staff at CSH are showing they can thrive in this new atmosphere of empowerment.

Likewise, Surrey’s Community Film Unit (CFU) shows how the Big Society can have a positive impact on the younger generation. Established by the council’s Youth Development Service ? which employed over 30 young adults and empowered them to design innovative programmes they felt would benefit the community ? the CFU has helped raise issues of local concern whilst giving a group of young adults useful skill-sets to arm themselves in a competitive job market. The Big Society is not about the state turning its back on communities therefore, but about enabling them to realise their potential in ways they, rather than central or local government, instigate.

As Surrey shows, the Big Society must involve young and old, urban and rural, and skilled and unskilled residents. Its ethos unites the cake makers of Chiddingfold ? where residents bake cakes for free which are then sold in a coffee bar sponsored by local churches ? with the self-funded (after a small initial council grant) neighbourhood watch groups of Spelthorne.

The Big Society has been much debated and sometimes misunderstood. Yet its overarching principles of collaboration and empowerment are both concepts to which most people would subscribe in theory, and are proving effective on the ground in practice. As these examples and many others show, the Big Society is happening in many villages, towns and cities across the UK, you only have to look and you will find it.

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