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Hull listens to the Big Society

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Like many partner organisations, council officers and local politicians, we know more about what the big society isn’t and less about what it is. There are many soundbites and much rhetoric, which currently add questionable value to those of us tasked with improving local services in our diverse communities.

Many wait for the tablets of stone to be brought down from the mountains to enlighten us on what the big society is and what we should do. Indeed, there are 12 “pathfinder mutuals” and four “vanguard communities”. These will no doubt be evaluated leading eventually to good practice guides and toolkits.

In Hull we did not wait for top down guidance and set up an intensive two-day programme involving over 130 individuals and organisations ranging from the business sector and social enterprises, the voluntary sector, councillors and officers through to young and older people and community representatives.

Independent facilitators led by the Institute of Community Cohesion (iCoCo) came from a wide range of backgrounds and knowledge including local government, voluntary sector and community development, education, community cohesion and social research from De Montfort University. It was important they were not seen as peddling the Big Society or were any part of central government machinery.

Their role was to listen to what the people of Hull think the Big Society means to them, what they are doing already that contributes to the concept of a Big Society, how potential can be creatively unlocked to do more, and importantly what messages do the people of Hull want taking back to the government.

The salient benefits of the process included:

  • Empathy with the challenges and opportunities voiced by organisations and individuals by understanding the local context and listening to what people said.
  • Tailoring the style of questioning to the participants – i.e. there were formal and informal interviews, visits to projects, presentations by organisations and discussion groups.

The outcome highlighted that there was a depth and diversity of community initiatives throughout the city. Some successful projects are in areas that have been labelled by the media as “write-offs”. These had developed over a long period of time with many ups and downs.

The facilitators were frequently told that there were no quick wins and resources and flexible infrastructures are needed. This represents just one important message to share with central government politicians wanting successful local outcomes with minimal resources.

The majority of participants were initially negative and sceptical about the big society. They have experienced too many new ideas from politicians and are rightly suspicious that this is just another short-term initiative but with an added concern of it degenerating into running public services “on the cheap”.

However, once people had aired their concerns there was a real sense of pride in individual projects and neighbourhoods as well as city-wide projects such as The Deep (an award-winning aquarium and education charity).

There were, nonetheless, many challenges raised. These included considerable variation in the degree to which projects were able to gear up to the Big Society in the current financial reality. This risks tensions between organisations and communities over the availability of resources, and concerns that some services involve doing things to and for people rather than empowering them.

The crucial issue is how ONE HULL, the local council, partners, projects and communities take forward the results of the rapid action stock-take. There are opportunities for addressing the challenges but it will need new approaches and even more effective partnership working including:

  • Helping local communities to plan improvements in their locality – building on the ONE HULL Community Engagement Programme to empower individuals and groups in local communities to become more actively involved in making decisions that affect them and the places where they live.
  • Hull is the first UK restorative city – it is holding an international conference in October 2010. The vision to make Hull a “family-friendly city” where all professionals and volunteers working with young people are versed in restorative practices aims to contribute to Big Society outcomes through promoting responsible dialogue between organisations, projects and neighbourhoods to help reach agreements on a fair allocation of resources.
  • Hull has developed innovative ways of measuring the aspirations of the people of Hull which will be built on to further develop aspirations to enable a shift from a “can’t do” to a “can do” culture throughout the city.

The two-day event, and the chance for so many people to express their views about what the Big Society means in Hull, has emphasised for us that the Big Society means something different across all our diverse communities. Knowing this presents a challenge, but it is also a great opportunity for us to make it work.

So our message to other localities is do not wait for top-down central government guidelines to interpret or implement the Big Society. Because one thing we learnt for sure is that the Big Society will mean something totally different for the people of Hull – and within the different communities – as it will mean for people in Bracknell Forest, Milton Keynes, Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Northumberland, or indeed any locality grappling with what the Big Society means and what to do with it.

Nicola Yates, chief executive, Hull City Council

  • For more on Big Society - see our special sections in LGC and LGCplus on 14 October
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