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Cautious welcome for Big Society plans

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The next stage of the “Big Society” was greeted with cautious optimism today by delegates of the four “vanguard communities” listening to the Prime Minister’s announcement.

Councils, the voluntary sector, business and charity workers from the four regions to take part attended a conference in Liverpool where David Cameron championed the initiative.

As expected with the announcement of a major new programme, audience members wanted more details. But most were optimistic about being part of an “experiment”, as Joe Anderson (Lab), Liverpool City Council leader, referred to it.

He said he welcomed the opportunity to work with the government to implement ideas behind the Big Society.

But he added that the government was giving mixed messages with the announcement a few weeks ago the city would lose £10m in grant money.

“It means we are hitting the very organisations that contribute to society in Liverpool, such as our voluntary service organisations,” he said. “There’s a whole plethora that help society. These are groups the Prime Minister seems to be saying he wants to help so that seems a strange way.

“We have been chosen to be a laboratory for the Big Society. If it’s taking it with one hand and giving with another it won’t help as Liverpool does innovative stuff with the third sector, the community groups and volunteers.”

Gary Strong (Con), cabinet member for safe and strong community at Cumbria CC, said the idea could greatly help the Eden Valley.

He said: “People have said to me ‘what is the Big Society all about?’ If it’s people taking more decisions for themselves, it’s very good.

“Eden Valley is a very rural and sparsely-populated area. Over many years, local services have been diminished.”

Oliver Shimmel, the county council’s community planning officer, said positive changes could be as simple as providing high speed broadband to the area’s rural employers.

“Lots of self-employed people can’t get it and that negatively affects their business,” he said, adding that lots of Eden Valley community groups already had their own co-ordinators and that he hoped there wasn’t too much money being spent appointing the four vanguard communities’ organisers.

“What we are struggling for is a bit of start up capital,” he said.

Rod Holmes, chairman of the Mersey Partnership, said it was important the Big Society push did not detract from bolstering the private sector, adding: “How could we not agree with so much of it?

“We have to drive our economy, build and support more businesses and create appropriate skills and do it very fast to continue what’s gone on in the past five or six years and accelerate it.

“That’s the only place we are going to create jobs and wealth. The private sector should be our biggest focus.”

Cathy Elliott, chief executive of Community Foundation for Merseyside, said she was pleased to hear about the launch of a charity bank but wanted more details.

Nick Hurd, minister for Civil Society, admitted it was “a complicated thing” to put together but said the bank should be up and running by April 2011.

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