Mayor - Big idea is already here

MUCH has been made this week about David Cameron’s “mission in politics” and his ideas and concepts of the “Big Society”.

I was listening to a radio phone-in the other day where one caller, who was not a Conservative voter and couldn’t stand the Prime Minister, was finding it really difficult to criticise the Big Society because he actually thought it was a very good idea.

The idea itself is a very good one and Mr Cameron has been extremely clever by bringing it forward.

The ideals behind the Big Society concepts are essentially socialist ones and that is why the idea should appeal to traditional Labour and Liberal Democrat voters and if you assume that most Conservative voters would agree with Government policy, then, in theory, the Big Society should be attractive to almost everyone in the country and I believe that is what David Cameron is counting on.

The criticism has been coming from many voluntary organisations who feel that the massive cuts to the public sector and particularly local authorities will have so much of an impact on the voluntary and community sector that the strong foundations already in place to deliver the Big Society ideas will have been forcibly removed and the concept will have failed before it has ever had a chance to begin.

The Prime Minister has been intentionally vague on exactly what the Big Society should be and I think he is right to do so because the reality is that it can mean many things to many people. Everybody has a different perception on what a volunteer is or what the voluntary sector does and should do.

The reality here in Hartlepool is that we already are a Big Society and we have been for many years. I have called Hartlepool the biggest village in the country so many times now that it has just about become a cliché but actually, this is really just another way of saying that the Big Society has long been alive and well in Hartlepool.

You can go to any corner of the town and you will come across people working and volunteering in the community sector and one of the main reasons Hartlepool has progressed so well over the last decade or more is due to the fact that we have such a strong and thriving third sector.

It is highly likely that most other places in the country don’t have the strengths and qualities in the voluntary sector that we enjoy in Hartlepool. It is almost certainly the case that most places don’t have the very good partnership working arrangements between the local authority and the voluntary sector.

It is definitely the case that the Big Society will work in Hartlepool given enough resources. I share the concerns of many of the critics that, in order for this idea to work, it needs to be funded properly but I am a lot less sceptical about the policy not materialising into anything of any substance at ground level.

If the National Citizenship Service scheme gets rolled out as planned this summer, where 1,000 youngsters of school leaving age in the Tees Valley will get to do some voluntary and community work over an eight week period, I believe that will be a huge success.

New funding pots like the Big Society Bank could potentially make a big difference in communities. There will be opportunities for people who have never before bothered, to get involved in improving the community in which they live and that has got to be applauded.

This is all good stuff although the Government cannot lose sight of the already well established groups who quite often provide specialist services in localities for people who are simply missed by the authorities.

Schemes like Connected Care at Owton Manor have made a huge difference, not only to the people who are assisted by the services but also to the way organisations like the Council and the Primary Care Trust think about delivering their services in order for them to have the maximum impact on the community. Senior civil servants are already well aware of a lot of the great work that goes on in the voluntary sector in Hartlepool and they are hopefully getting the message loud and clear during some recent visits.

The Council, in agreeing next year’s budget, has recognised the importance of the voluntary sector to Hartlepool and we will be looking at news ways of working better together, with less funding, over the coming months.

I went along to see prime example of how the Big Society is already working here earlier this week at Rossmere youth centre. A couple of years ago, a group of young people with a passion for skateboarding got together and came up with an idea of getting a new skate park for the town.

A piece of land next to Rossmere youth centre was identified and from that moment the youngsters ran with the project better than many professionals.

I attended a public meeting at the time and it is fair to say that there were many residents not too keen on the idea and tempers were getting a bit heated. A couple of the skaters stood up to speak at the meeting and delivered their argument so well that many doubters were changed their and then. The youngsters then set about convincing the rest of the neighbours over the next few months and rounded it off by delivering a flawless speech at the meeting of the planning committee.

The skate park is now well on the way to completion and should be ready by early April. The park has been totally designed by the young people and even insisted on a special type of concrete absorbs most of the noise.

Security on the park has been designed in and it will be run and managed by the youth centre. It has been a fabulous project that has been almost exclusively down to a group of young Hartlepudlians who weren’t happy with the current situation and decided to do something about it. If that is not the Big Society in action, then I don’t know what is.

I’ll watch developments on the Big Society idea with interest and I’ll be particularly keen to see how these public sector cuts will halt its progress.

I believe we should give the Big Society a chance and if David Cameron has the courage of his convictions and the concept is properly funded, we have the potential to do more great things in this part of the world.