Richard Wilson argues that the August riots require us to radically shift how we approach strengthening community life.
The August riots have put community life central to national debate. They have also laid down an enormous challenge to those of us seeking to strengthen community life. Cameron’s Big Society, already coming under intense fire due to its naivety of execution, looks potentially fatally wounded.
It’s hard at the best of times for old Etonians to credibly preach about the value of ordinary community life, in the wake of the riots it may have been political suicide. At the time of writing this article there has not been any recent mention of the Big Society by Cameron, it maybe that the brand has died or that a refreshed version is to be relaunched in Manchester at the Conservative party conference.
Whatever the case, Britain is now a different place from what is was in May 2010. Whether the Big Society is resuscitated or something else replaces it, a movement to strengthen community life is clearly badly needed. But any movement must explicitly harness the enthusiasm and energy of everyone across the country; right and left, rich and poor. The task facing us is huge. Having founded a community involvement charity six years ago, I can speak with confidence that there is no silver bullet. We are dealing with a complex mix of global social trends consuming our time and radically changing community ties; and particular local issues, many exacerbated by the cuts, which require specific solutions. Strengthening our communities is simultaneously urgent and difficult, and it requires a concerted effort from all interested parties.
The Big Society has for many people felt like a party political policy, rather than something everyone can participate it. In this sense, it has been exclusive and excluding, a problem exacerbated by some Big Society leaders overtly criticising many of the major charities who are central to achieving any kind of success. Additionally, for those working in communities already, the Government’s approach has appeared naive and often badly informed. For example, some in Government have cited recent spikes in volunteering requests or the occasional constituency anecdote as evidence that people are keen to become more involved. To those of us in the field, these examples are more hopeful than helpful, and are interpreted as blind optimism in the face self-evident challenges which have gone unmentioned at government level.
When the Big Society is framed by government in purely aspirational terms, without recognising the significant challenges, many of those engaged in this struggle feel the natural need to balance the aspiration with caution and realism. While this is natural, it’s also a big problem for the project, as by being only aspirational and ambitious the government have forced many of the people it needs to lead the Big Society to become its biggest critics. The government has issued a challenge to the sector and to society, to co-create the Big Society. To do this, those inspired by the notion need to feel positive themselves; particularly as the cuts they face are biting so hard.
We need therefore, a more balanced communication from government sources, grounded in both the challenges and the inherent uncertainties of strengthening our communities. It is in this vein that we have created the Civic Limits programme, to look concretely at how we can get more people involved in community life, warts and all. We have produced an initial report and put it online for comment, we are also hosting workshops on Civic Limits at each of the three main party conferences to debate the issues further.
Through Civic Limits it is our intention to start a process for co-creating a response for how to re-build community life in Britain which all can be part of. A response that is explicitly non partisan and based on the best available evidence. An approach that is ambitiously realistic not blindly optimistic. An approach which will not be the final word, but maybe a good start on creating a political discourse which can transcend party allegiance and focus on the real challenge of creating a society of which we all can be part.
To get involved in the Civic Limits programme contact Thom Townsend firstname.lastname@example.org