Will Cameron’s Minnows make a difference?

The shape of ‘Big Society’ activism is beginning to take shape with job adverts starting to appear for the 5,000 volunteer organisers. £20,000 a year – presumably plus on costs – is a lot of money or three tenths of bugger all depending how you look at it.

I look at it in the latter way. In our book on Community Politics which was published last autumn Erica and I guesstimated that there were up to 3,500,000 people in the country who could be described as regular long term volunteers. They work in so many ways that it’s almost impossible to list them. They run churches; scouts; amenity groups, tenants associations; charity shops; the WI; resident associations; youth clubs – well the list is endless. They do everything from plant woodlands to running steam railways; to caring for the mentally ill; to running hospices – again an endless list. On top of that that are many more that will do something from time as asked to raise some funds, get petitions organised; help with school trips – again an almost endless list.

All those volunteers need co-ordinating and there is a very small army of people who assist them. Clergy of all denominations; community development workers; tenant liaison workers; charity coordinators; head teachers; hospice managers; librarians – again an endless list. But a list that’s lengthy is being threatened by cuts. In Liverpool we are having to dispense with some excellent work done by LCVS which enables support work to be given to volunteers and residents groups throughout the city. So somewhere we will be taking on volunteer coordinators (it all sounds a bit like Mormon Missionaries to me) and at the same time we will be cutting back on volunteer coordinators! Are you following the logic here? Let me try again. New people with no roots and not part of an established and successful operation will replace people with roots and who are part of an established and successful operation. YOU’RE RIGHT- THERE IS NO LOGIC TO THIS!!!!

I find rather sad because I do not want to trash ‘Big Society’. As I have remarked on other blog postings I don’t know what it is but I still welcome it because of the direction that it implies. So let me make once again what I regard to be an uncontentious and useful offer to Government. Instead of recruiting more volunteer coordinators provide extra support to councillors who should be at the heart of community activity in their area.

Across the UK there are about 25,000 councillors on principal authorities and more than 100,000 on parish/town and community councils. Some of them are useless – inevitable given the numbers, but most of them know almost everything that is going on in the community that they serve. A good councillor is active the whole time establishing new local and amenity groups or supporting those that already exist. They know who needs help and in what way and usually would see their role as being the partner to the groups inside their area. When we councillors need help we reach out to the professionals in the community in all those organisations I listed above. As a councillor I can call the first meeting of a new body and help them establish themselves but I cannot provide the day to day back up which is often required especially in areas of greatest need where there is the most volatility in the community.

Some would say that what Cameron is suggesting is a gimmick. I don’t believe that I just think that he has very little idea of how society actually works and how communities work together. From the position of his right wing think tank adviser who has never actually done any of this stuff new bodies with new budgets and new roles seem just the stuff to make things work. It reminds me very much of the unfocussed evangelism of Tony Blair whose answer to everything was, “set up a new initiative!”

The LGA, Cllr Steve Reed and Cllr Colin Barrow and I have continually offered to help the Government with their localism agenda. We don’t and won’t agree with all of it but there is enough in common between those of us who believe in localism for us to bury those differences and work together. Our offer has fallen on stony ears and I believe that this initiative will fall, on stony ground. We don’t need initiativeitis we need constant support from experienced people – paid and volunteer alike – to enable volunteering to flourish.

Listen David – Listen and take up our very genuine offer of help.


About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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