by Philip Sellwood

Last week I spoke at a conference, and it got me thinking. This conference – the Sustainable Communities, Building the Big Society conference – was the first opportunity of its kind since the election to get together with environmental leaders from across the UK around thebig issues – and there were plenty of big issues to discuss.

 Unsurprisingly, the hot topic was the ‘Big Society’ itself. People from up and down the land shared their very real concerns about what it’s going to mean in practice, and how we need – all of us – to behave to make it work.

Victoria Derbyshire’s straw poll of the audience showed an even split down the middle of those in support, or not, of the coalition government’s ‘Big Idea’. Even people who supported it in principle at the same time voiced their concerns about how it might work in practice.

There were assertions that the ‘Big Society’ is nothing new: in some form, it’s been going on for centuries. (It could also be argued that this was what used to be known simply as ‘society’.) There’s a case to be made for this, in one way, but the third sector organisations in the audience were united in fearing that it’s about to get a lot bigger – and that they may be the ones picking up the tab on behalf of central and local Government.  

The big question was: how do you get local people engaged a time when people are possibly struggling to make ends meet – with some even doing two jobs?

Examples were cited, amid confusion and anxiety. Cllr Sean Brennan, Leader of Sutton Council, believes that even if only a small number of local leaders can be relied on to drive big initiatives through, these soon engage the wider community. A community of people making small changes can add up to something big. In illustration he described Sutton’s ‘One Planet Sutton’  initiative – supported by the council, and led by local people.

Richard McCarthy from the Department for Communities and Local Government outlined a new bill which has been designed to give local communities much more say over planning applications, so they can really determine what happens where they live. People will be encouraged to take ownership of local facilities and to invest in new business and housing developments themselves – with a presumption on planning permission in favour of sustainability.

It seems that Sutton won’t be the only ‘One Planet’ then? If the big society is going to work for all of us, we’ll need many more small, community-sized planets.

The bottom line is that we all need to chip in and get things done – big and small – and not rely completely on our third sector friends. There will be some money, but it will be down to people like you and me to see that it gets spent in the ways our local communities – that is, our neighbours – need and want.

After the conference I headed off to an appointment to give blood, still pondering on everything I’d heard. As I walked along it dawned on me that I was already taking part in the Big Society, and I hadn’t even realised it. Maybe the Big Society is just doing that little extra bit we do to give something back.

One thing most of us agree on nowadays: there is such a thing as society, it’s not the same as the ‘State’. Let’s make it work together.