Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Discussing big society without using the words 'big society' A couple of days ago someone posted this note on the East Dulwich Forum (a very popular local site which covers an area in south London): sweep your own leaves, clean your own ice and snow: saving the council money balancing the budget Posted by ataubin November 14, 04:48PM At the Community Council Meeting on 10 November at St Faith's we were told Southwark has to cut 80 million from its budget. But where? What if we make East Dulwich a trial, a model for community (tiny) action that saves mega bucks? If every one sweeps the leaves and clears the ice and snow from the 8 metres in front of their property the council would save up to 10 million pounds. Yes, you read that correctly: 10 million if everyone did it. Seems a small action to me to save a lot of money. In an entire year it might take one hour? two?. No leaf blowers, no trucks. 10 million saved... The sequence of responses encapsulates a number of the standard responses to big society, including for example - The Perverse-Logic rejection: 'there would need to be a shed load of money spent to advertise this so people knew they had to' (which seems to deny the power of the local online network itself to do this bit for nothing). The Naive-Detection-of-Fatal-Flaw parry: 'Great idea and no problem doing it but my street has quite a lot of older people living on it. Would they be expected to clear up? If they don't then how will it work with half the street clear and the rest not?' The I-Couldn't-Possibly-Where-Are-The-Servants? riposte (not for the novice, a difficult niche genre this one but supremely performed here): 'I don't mean to be unhelpful but I own neither broom nor shovel (dustpan and brush aside). Having traversed the mulchy leaves in frippantly high heels, I know this is a task that needs doing, but I'm afraid my tools are not fit for purpose.' The We're-So-Rubbish-In-This-Country-Other-Places-Do-It-Better standard proclamation: 'In Germany and parts of the US and Canada you have to clear the path in front of your house of snow by law.' The Informative-Intervention by a ward councillor: 'The Snow code highlights good practice to clear snow from pavements and paths such that you can avoid being successfully sued - which is a commonly given reason for people saying why they haven't cleared the pavement outside their home.' The Calm-Sensible-Intervention by same: 'Their (sic) will never be enough council employees to clear all pavements outside homes - hundreds of kilometres of pavements. But if residents clear the pavement outside their home the effects of the snow would be dramatically reduced. This really helps reduce peoples isolation.' The Defence-Of-Jobs-Above-All-Else deflection: 'I presume more people would be made unemployed by this thus money would have to be spent supporting them and their families?' The Completely-Miss-The-Point-Damnd-If-I-Will blurting-out (exquisitely executed in this example): 'Considering the amount of council tax we pay I personally wont be sweeping any...
Caution: is your community legal? This is fun. According to the LGiU, ‘The good folks at Eland House have a problem on their hands. The official line is that the Localism Bill has been delayed by “parliamentary congestion”. There’s also speculation, however, that the Bill is being delayed because some of its content is creating a headache for the civil servants. One of the most interesting sticking points is providing a legal definition of what a community is.’ While I was still rolling around on the floor helpless with laughter, visualising the desperate policing of various kinds of illegal communities ('excuse me sir, I have reason to believe you have nothing in common with the people at no.38'), my old mate Gabriel Chanan who has worked alongside these hapless officials and has perhaps more sympathy with their plight, saw a glimmer of an opportunity and fired-off the following snippet of wisdom to The Times: Sir, Civil servants preparing the Localism Bill for the government are said to be having difficulty defining what a community is so that it can be given legal powers. This is promising. A community cannot be given legal powers because it is not an entity. It is a description of a certain (or more often uncertain) state of relationships amongst the population of a locality or some other group with interests in common. The only population-based entity to which you can give legal powers in a locality is a community organisation of one sort or another. This ought to throw the spotlight onto the question of the relationship between such an organisaton and the rest of the local population. So when the government, in Big Society mode, says it will enable ‘communities’ to take over a public service, the question should immediately arise of what does that community organisation need to do to show that it is acting in the interests of the whole local population, and what responsibility necessarily remains with the relevant public authority to ensure this. Communities as a whole do not and cannot take over public services. Community organisations can collaborate with public authorities to deliver the services better. Gabriel Chanan, www.pacesempowerment.co.uk Who knows if they'll publish it, but I have.

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