Big Society in the North East?

At the Community Foundation’s AGM on 25 November 2010, we welcomed Lord Wei, the Government advisor on the ‘Big Society’ who gave the audience a great insight into this key area of current thinking.

Whatever label it’s given, ‘big society’ is at the heart of the Community Foundation’s work. And there is no shortage of community organising and informal activism in our area, much of it already outside the scope of the public purse. Evidence also tells us that the North East has higher than average bonding social capital: people here see family and neighbours more regularly than those in the south. Couple that with our strong local and regional identities, and there is fertile ground here for the Big Society-style citizenship.

But we also mix less frequently with people from different backgrounds and our communities continue to experience greater disadvantage than those in the south. Insufficient bonding and linking social capital could leave our communities unchanged, despite the efforts of local activists and organisations. So we still need a strong civil society delivering transformational work. In our area, voluntary groups already employ staff, run services and work with many of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people.  Public sector cuts could hit them hard. If the Big Society is to do more than provide further bonding social capital in the north, small and medium sized organisations will need new resources to oil the wheels of change.

Given the scale of the public sector restrictions, private investment will have to be the Big Society’s catalyst. Philanthropy in the North East has a proud history and vital presence. (It is more than mere happenstance that the largest UK community foundation serves Tyne & Wear and Northumberland.) But in areas likely to be slower to benefit from economic recovery, will wealthy individuals and businesses be willing and able to finance the Big Society’s planned transfer of power and responsibility from the state to civil society? There are ways to strengthen our hand. More devolved funding streams will help. And a renewed focus on community philanthropy could channel much needed voluntary income into civil society. But we need more incentives to give, like our Grassroots scheme that matched private generosity with Government money.

There is a powerful theory of change at the heart of the Big Society agenda – that greater fairness and opportunity will result from citizens doing more to help each other. We hope that Lord Wei takes back to London some of the valuable insights gained from his visit on the challenges in delivering this ambition and some of the great ways we here are already doing so.

Posted on 26/11/2010 @ 12:10 pm
Filed under: Blog

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