Rory Stewart MP 8.04am
Many clever people have told me why the Big Society can’t work, won’t work, oughtn’t to work. Their criticisms can be so sophisticated and echo so many pre-existing assumptions, that I am almost embarrassed to point out that the Big Society does work. I have seen David and Crosby Ravensworth lay the foundations for their own affordable housing project; Libby and Upper Eden transform rural planning; Carl and Appleby launch a new hydro-power scheme; and Freddy and Morland begin to plan for the first large-scale community owned broadband in Europe. These are projects that would have been very difficult to imagine six months ago.
The constant force behind all this - quite independent of government policy - is found in the communities themselves. It is they - not individuals, or businesses, or government, or even the voluntary sector (although these things are themselves important) - which constitute the Big Society. And these communities are defined by curiosity, ambition and a stubborn determination to succeed. I see it when 6,000 people in Penrith sign a petition to save the local cinema and then create a group on a Sunday afternoon, dividing seventy tasks between them. This is unmanufactured, clear, responsible and determined action. These communities pre-exist any government.
The Government’s role - its claim on the Big Society and the reason these things were not happening six months ago - cannot be quantified in money, or enshrined in legislation. The Government’s role is to provide endorsement - its legitimacy, if you like - to these communities. The Government should ask again and again one simple question: “Why not?”
"Why not allow the community to do what it wants?"
"Why can’t it build its own housing or bicycle path, or hydro-power scheme? Or decide what is built in the village? Or use its own muscle and ingenuity to get a much better, faster broadband connection than the Government could envisage or provide?"
It is a simple, almost as if a child’s, question - with extraordinary effect. By some miracle, for all the controversy and confusion, the idea of the Big Society seems to have penetrated deeper and have had more appeal than anyone could have expected. Ask “why not?”, and someone from the Environment Agency tries a little harder to make a hydro scheme work; the housing trust shows the flexibility to take on a community bid; the county council officer is inspired to press once more to get round the state aid regulations and link the broadband project to the public fibre-optic cable that is already in the ground; and the planner thinks twice.
Of course, much of what the critics say is right. The success is based on very hard work in a single community: it cannot be simply replicated or taken to scale across the country. What works in Cumbria may not work in Liverpool. There are comedies and setbacks; disagreements, failures and frustrations. These communities sometimes need government money and technical support. Sometimes there are good reasons why communities should not have the final word: when the issue is too technical (take medical surgery, for example), or threatens the vulnerable, or affects national infrastructure (take railways).
But success is there: and beyond anything I imagined. What is remarkable is not that these communities need government money or technical advice, but how little they often seem to need: how often they fall back on their own resources, time or research.
How their passion, local knowledge and commitment can give them a power, a creativity and legitimacy that far exceeds that of any distant expert. Giving the freedom and support to do what they already want to do. And sometimes, creating the conditions for them to realise there was something else they wanted to do, which they had not yet acknowledged.
This enacted, village to village, residents across Cumbria show off the best of the Big Society.
Rory Stewart is the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border, having been elected in May 2010.
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