People, it seems, are troubled by the Big Society. The BS as I’ll call it (for the sake of brevity naturally) has been dissed by luminaries as divergent as Polly Toynbee and Peter Oborne and views range from scepticism to scorn. Lately I’ve been wondering though: isn’t Lewes the sort of place where the BS might flourish? Could Lewes be a Little-Big Society?
First let’s clarify what we’re talking about. The Conservatives made a very big deal in their manifesto of replacing some Government activity with community instigated action. Labour commanded from the centre but the Tories plan to encourage smaller scale innovations and, most particularly, help people exercise “responsibility over their lives”. Much of the debate has concentrated on an anxiety that paid-for public services will be replaced by voluntary efforts. Is this trying to get something for nothing? Can it even happen when the state is being cut? The other angst-du-jour has been that voluntary work is the province of the rich: people in places like Oxfordshire (David Cameron country), where posh MPs have no idea what it’s like for those scraping a living. One might wonder if people struggling to get by are likely to open a Free School or start a charity. Or perhaps it’s insulting to assume that they’re not?
Research on volunteering tells a more complex story. People volunteer for all sorts of reasons but the unifying one is some kind of meaningful return for the effort. Not quite something for nothing then. It also turns out it’s not exactly wealth which predicts the desire to do this. What is more important is human capital. This involves having sufficient dosh for sure, but also requires people with spare time, skills, education and a sense of linkage to their communities. Of course, human capital is not something that is equally available to all parts of the country and the BS may thus end up giving more to those who have. To neglect this point seems simplistic and more than a little crass.
Lewes is pretty well endowed with human capital. As well as high average incomes, we have loads of community activities (just check Viva’s listings), all sorts of volunteering opportunities and vocal (if sometimes unconvincing) environmental activists. Some of the schools have a level of parental involvement that I’m sure would make many Heads sick with envy. At one stage we even had someone putting luminous stripes round dog poo (how I long for their return!)
But where does this get us? Well, that Lewes may be a place where you can see if the BS can actually lead to something productive (or at the very least minimise the damage from public sector cuts). To mangle Sinatra: if it can’t make it here it can’t make it anywhere. On the other hand, perhaps the real trouble with the BS is that, even if it’s a success in places like Lewes, it may nonetheless turn out to be BS anyway.