The Rural Services Network (RSN) reports that the Government has found some cash to fund an ‘Institute of Community Organising’ to push forward its Big Society agenda – and Norfolk will be one of ten counties where the plan is trialled. The money will be used to identify and train a cohort of up to 500 ‘Senior Organisers’ across the country, each receiving a bursary of £20,000 in their first year. A further 4,500 voluntary organisers will also receive training. According to the Cabinet Office press release:
They will work closely with communities to identify local leaders, projects and opportunities, and empower the local community to improve their local area.
From previous comments on Ruralise about the pivotal role that inspired community activists will play in the initiatives like the Community Right to Build (CRTB), you will not be surprised to hear that in principle I think this a sensible move, but it does raise some interesting questions.
Firstly, Norfolk alone has over 700 parishes, so this money will be spread extremely thinly – as one would expect in this ‘age of austerity’. Secondly, there is an issue of accountability. One Mike Burt left a comment on the RSN article, and I will repeat it in full (I hope he doesn’t mind):
The big society as laid out is in my view going to put our democracy at risk who is going to choose the community organisers and then their assistants and volunteers? Who will decide the policy? We have in existence Community Partnerships who are supposed to hold regular meetings to report back and receive direction; one of them has not held a public meeting at all in 2010. We already have elected representatives who come up for election every 4 years and the public have a democratic right to change them. All it needs is central government to allow them more freedom to run their areas in line with the wishes of the community. How will the big society be held to account? Will it not be the select few doing as they wish without any accountability?
It’s a good point. No doubt the Government would argue that the money will be delivered ‘at arm’s length’ (my expression) through a new organisation, ‘Locality’ – formed by a merger of the Development Trusts Association and BASSAC – so it will not be ‘paying the piper’ directly. But the perception of bias and influence will not be easily overcome. And, connected to this, in Mike Burt’s comment lies a third important observation:
Like so much of the Localism agenda, this isn’t entirely new thinking. In the early ‘noughties’ I was loosely involved in an organisation called the Wymondham Development Partnership – later re-named the Wymondham Community Partnership (WCP) (largely because of the negative connotations of the word ‘development’!) It emerged with the support of EEDA through Action for Market Towns, with a mission to connect, support and encourage a wide range of community initiatives and organisations in the town. At the high-watermark of the organisation, a Community Development Officer post was funded, to support the activities of the volunteers who actually ran the Partnership, putting in hundreds, if not thousands of hours over its lifetime. Eventually the funding stream was cancelled, and (as these things are prone to do) the Partnership gradually declined.
Not only is there a big issue here about the intermittent nature of government-agency interest in the community sector, but there is also a real issue of accountability. The WCP always struggled with the accusation of being ‘paid for by EEDA’ and being ‘unaccountable’, a view expressed vociferously on occasion by members of the public (sometimes literally with a jabbing finger!), and also one held tacitly but deeply by local elected representatives, with whom the Partnership was committed to collaborating.
The new cohort of organisers, especially the ones who take money from central government (in a glorious paradox of ‘localism’) will have to manage these last two issues carefully. And I guess the Government should have some regard to the impact that Localism might have on local democracy – including its own parish, town and district councillors. I wish them all luck. Honestly.