Bashing the Bishop ““ But was the “ËœArch’ Right

I have loved the continuous coverage of the war of words between the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams and the Prime Minister David Cameron ably supported by a legion of right wing press reporters and bloggers. It’s true to say that there has been a fair amount of bishop bashing today.

Some say that religion is the cause of many a conflict, this one was started by an article the Archbishop wrote for the left leaning New Statesman magazine.

In it he questions the Conservative, Liberal Democrat coalition government, saying quite rightly, that no individuals voted for the policies that have been adopted.

Dr Williams wrote that the coalition was causing “Ëœwidespread suspicion’ and was creating “Ëœanxiety and anger’ in the country by introducing reforms without sufficient debate.

He accused the coalition of imposing their health and education policies at “Ëœremarkable speed’.

I don’t think anyone who has read the article can be in any doubt that the Archbishop has little time for David Cameron & Nick Cleggs policies and is perhaps a little left leaning in his political outlook.

Not since Robert Runcie’s numerous sparring contests with Margret Thatcher has an Archbishop dived head first into the politics of the country.

When you look back in history, there is a long tradition of the church commenting on political issues. Indeed some Archbishops have played key roles in not just politics but the monarchy before parliament was formed.

But in a modern day society, should the head of the Church of England be wading into party politics criticising the government of the day.

Leaders of minority religions aren’t afraid of speaking out. Muslim leaders are often in the news giving their opinions on a wide range of topics, so for me it was good to see the leader of the Church of England give his two penneth.

I was heartened by David Cameron’s response though, the dummy didn’t fly out, he came back with exactly the right comments when he said that the archbishop was entirely free to express “political views” and make “political interventions”. But he added: “I profoundly disagree with many of the views that he has expressed, particularly on issues like debt and welfare and education.”

Whether we agree with his point of view, or like David Cameron, profoundly disagree with it, there has been a precedent set now so I expect it will not be the last time Dr Williams speaks out and criticises the government of the day.

Other CofE leaders have leapt to the defence in the wake of today’s [Friday] public Bishop bashing.

The Bishop of Guildford said Dr Williams’s comments were “Ëœentirely reasonable’ – he said: “Government cannot at any stage simply abrogate its responsibility. One of the prime, core functions of government is the care of all in society, especially those at the bottom.”

I think the tone of the Archbishop’s article took government ministers by surprise. They have responded to Dr Williams’s comments with Liam Fox and Vince Cable defending the claims that the government do not have a mandate to impose sever austerity measures.

I also think that Dr Williams, as a left wing sympathiser, is struggling with the concept that the Lib Dem’s went into the last general election even further to the left than the Labour Party and then jumped into bed with a party way to the right of the Labour Party.

Mind you, they say that opposites attract don’t they?

I admit to being quite surprised by the Archbishops political intervention.

When he has made a speech I’ve always thought that he was a bit wishy washy and as assertive as a field mouse.

He has hardly set the world alight with his insights into the moral’s of a modern day society.

In a society where there is often a breakdown in family values, communities that are blighted by anti-social behaviour and a monumental surge toward materialism, I can’t remember seeing one single hard hitting interview either broadcast or written where he has spoken out on the challenges that meet a progressive society.

He saved his biggest and harshest dig at the “ËœBig Society’ and yet if done correctly, this could restore some of the values that have been lost over recent generations. I think we could do with some of the good old fashioned “ËœDunkirk Spirit’ in a nation that is being ravaged by cuts and many normal Joe and Joanne’s are being left jobless. And a culture shift where the public sector is being disseminated like a game of Jenga.

It looks like politics could be his new game. Maybe he has given up the traditional role as being our moral compass?

So, in summary, I’m saying to Dr Williams yes get involved in the political scene. Represent the views of your flock, be the voice of those that are the most vulnerable in our society, here I do believe that there is a cross over between religion and the state.

But have a go at putting your own house in order first eh? The Church of England is still stuck in the dark ages. There is a bloody battle being fought in an organisation that is institutional sexist, women are fighting for equality. And where gay people are afraid to declare their sexuality.

Churches are losing their flocks in large numbers. The only churches that are booming are those with an ethos like the Breathe City Church here in Stoke-on-Trent.

They are supporting, helping and fixing communities. They are inclusive of gender and sexual orientation. They have progressive and moral leaders. Their numbers are shooting through the roof mostly at the expense of the traditional churches.

So you have a bit of a job on there Dr Williams, there is work to be done in your own palaces, cathedrals and churches before you march upon Westminster.

Power To The People

In order to be clear from the outset, I’m a fan of Stoke-on-Trent. There is a general perception of the city which I think is unfair and I like the diverse places that make up the Potteries and I particularly like ““ and have an affection for ““ the people. I lived in the city for several years whilst studying at the University and after that when I worked for the City Council.

Again so people are clear where I’m coming from, I’m passionate about local democracy and the role effective local government plays in improving the lives of local people. Working for the Council ““ both when I was a student on a year-long work placement and again when I graduated ““ helped reinforce my own beliefs about the important combination of democracy and people coming together to help each other and their community. It was a privelege to work for the Council and I have continued to stay in touch with developments in the city and at the Council over the years. I am a regular visitor to Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire and both are places that always feel like home.

So my starting point for this post is not about knocking the Council. Far from it as I have friends who work there and I often bump into councillors and officers at local government conferences. I am full of admiration of the tens of thousands of councillors in all layers of government who up and down the country put themselves forward to make a difference in their community; and also the local government workforce committed to implementing their vision and delivering local services. The current economic climate and challenges facing local government and public services are meaning tough choices are being made. There are no hiding places for councillors at the moment and irrespective of political affiliations or the unfortunate low level of trust in politicians at all levels, they have a tough job right now and have my total respect.

Hence I am rooting for the new Chief Executive and the Councils’ political leadership to respond successfully to recent challenges such as the Governance Commission report and the current challenge of tough financial circumstances.

But the point of my post is that I think now is the perfect moment for principal authorities ““ like the City Council ““ to give up some power, to trust local people more and allow them to shape their places and make the decisions that ultimately affect their lives. And I think that one of the options that the Council ““ or more directly local people themselves ““ should be looking at is reinvigorating local democracy and community action through setting up new local councils.

What people across the Potteries may not be aware of is that for many years people in all parts of England have had the right, if there is local support, to set up a new local council. In rural areas these are usually called parish councils although there is no link to any church, and in more populated areas they are often called town councils. Only in recent years was this right actually extended to London where people in the capital had been specifically prohibited from setting up a council to represent their neighbourhood or community. And again only recently were local councils allowed to change their name to community, neighbourhood or village council to better reflect local identity.

But “Ëœpower to the people’ has been a familiar phrase in over 200 communities over the last decade where new local councils have been established in those areas. People living across Stoke-on-Trent, familiar previously with both the City Council and County Council but now just the former, may, if they so choose, take advantage of establishing a local council in the same way residents in any other part of the country have and continue to do so.

Empowered local people coming together to take more responsibility for their community through local councils is a tried and tested and trusted model of grassroots democracy and neighbourhood action.

In areas without a grassroots local council, people need to decide what geographical area their local council would cover and these will vary to suit local wishes. However the very distinct places ““ or towns ““ that make up the Potteries lend themselves to a natural definition as these are real places where real people live.

But perhaps being a sceptical bunch and whose perception of the activities and services of the City Council may at present not be the most positive, people may question the benefits of having a smaller local council in the same area. For a start, the structure of local government is acknowledged as being fairly remote from people. In European countries, the most local of democratically elected representatives will often represent just a few hundred people, and everyone knows who their representative is. In London for example, a borough councillor will often represent nine or ten thousand people.

So the first benefit is that a new very local council would be made up of elected representatives who must have a direct connection to that locality or community and who then qualify to truly represent the interests of local people. Decisions on a range of issues specific to that area can then be made as locally as possible and based on the strength of the views of local people. This helps people feel that local government is relevant to them and to their lives. It also means their views can be easily heard and acted upon promptly. This already happens in over 9,000 communities up and down the country, where local councils of all shapes and sizes are a central part of the fabric of the community, so why not in Stoke-on-Trent?

Local councils have a wide range of legal powers and can invest in the community to meet and deliver its aspirations through the precept, a form of council tax. In stark contrast to the £100 billion spent in the rest of local government, local councils do not receive money from Government, but raise money directly from their community ““ local councils raised around £500 million this year. As is often the case, this acts a lever for drawing in further investment and funding from other sources. Because county, district or unitary councils are large and with a complex range of functions, they need large numbers of staff and complex structures. But because a local council is concentrating on a relatively small area, overheads are low, and numbers of staff can in some cases be counted on one hand. The result is that the money is then carefully invested to provide and maintain a range of very local services ranging from sporting, entertainment and tourist facilities, community centres, car parks, crime reduction measures, open spaces for recreational use and bus shelters to name just a few. These are all highly desirable visible services designed to meet the particular needs of local people, and with the expenditure remaining under very local control.

The versatility of local councils is also a distinct feature, as they have a wide remit for activities in which they can get involved with, and can focus upon the priorities that emerge from within the community. For example, they may choose to fund dedicated community development workers to help them develop their vision for their area through a community-led plan. They might want to pay for a new Police Community Support Officer, or respond to queries from individual residents and represent the needs and interests of the community to other service providers.

Local councils provide a meaningful and effective conduit for local people to get involved with local services or issues they would not otherwise be able to. They can act as a focus for really empowering the local community, by stimulating action to improve services, providing facilities and supporting the aspirations of local people. Interestingly, there are many successful local councils around the country made up of people who are elected as independents and they operate in a bi-partisan way. Local councillors will all have their own views on national politics and vote in national elections accordingly, but in order to improve their community, the vast majority do not to stand for election wearing a party hat.

The National Association of Local Councils, who I work for as the Head of Policy and Development, has long been an advocate of extending and developing the role of local councils. We have persistently made the case that neighbourhood and local community governance is becoming increasingly relevant and its spread should be encouraged, and particularly in urban areas. This is a view I share personally too.

NALC has welcomed the Government’s commitment to empowering people, communities and local government through its localism and Big Society proposals and we believe the creation of new local councils can be an excellent way of supporting these objectives.

However, the exciting prospect of local people starting to plan to set up community councils in their bit of Stoke-on-Trent will raise eyebrows and come in for criticism from some quarters. Possibly predictably this will be from people already in positions of power and who may feel threatened. This is unlikely to improve the already low levels of trust in politicians. I would acknowledge concerns may even be raised about community cohesion. This is vitally important, but one of the reasons and benefits for establishing local councils is their ability to contribute to and enhance community cohesion. Any rise in extremism at local council level would be as much a failure of the political parties and our democracy collectively rather than of a particular local government system. Local councils are well placed to lead and organise events to celebrate the fact that in their areas there are so many different faiths and cultures living and working together. A local council in Milton Keynes, for example, has been highlighted by the Home Office for their work in this area.

Only by giving local people a real voice and say over the way services are provided will communities feel connected to their governance and democracy. The key principle must be to empower communities, not restrict the democratic process. People and communities should not be constrained by those already in positions of power and responsibility seemingly taking the view that an extension of democracy is a good thing but people in Burslem, Longton or Shelton are not quite ready for it yet.

Ultimately people have to be trusted to take a little more control over the things that most affect their day to day lives. The great people and communities in Stoke-on-Trent have a right to set up a new very local council if they want one. I for one think that they should be allowed to decide what is best for them and take decisions accordingly

Justin Griggs is a runner, a dad, a passionate local government geek, a technology and social media enthusiast, a school parent governor and works for the National Association of Local Councils

In praise of the New Government

I was talking to a friend about feelings to the new Government. I told him how impressed I was with the vigour in which a coalition Government had set about its task although having my ideological doubts about some aspects of the administration.

He agreed with me. It is the speed and the confidence with which they seem to move that is breath taking. Take one issue, which appeared in the news this week, the question of removing the age barrier of 65 for workers. The Government did this in the face of groups such as Institute of Director’s and the Confederation of British Industry. They did it within a few months. Like that sorted.

When one looks at the way in which New Labour dealt with age discrimination in the work place with voluntary codes before deciding on legislation which came into force in the autumn of 2006, 9 years after they came to power. The pace was leisurely. I have to admit that I have a particular interest in the issue because I suffered from difficulty in finding work since I hit my 40s. I was interested in seeing the social injustice of people being thrown on the scrap heap when they reached a certain age addressed. I had hoped the Labour Government would approach it with some dispatch. I was to be disappointed. If there seems to be one thing that characterised New Labour was its hesitancy and is unwillingness to upset powerful interests such as the CBI. unless one counts the Trade Union Movement.

This directness of the new Government of is refreshing and already the list promised for new acts and legislation is impressive especially when one considers this is a minority government dependent on Liberal Democrat support.

In Education they have already have legislation in place.

In Health the proposed changes are far more sweeping than was ever envisaged by Mrs Thatcher in her pomp when she took on the reform of the Health Service in the late 1980s.

In Law and Order ASBOs have been done away and the Government is pressing ahead with a root and branch review of the Police service. It has also put forward rather pungent changes to the prison service.

A referendum is promised on voting reform for next May when all we had from Labour was the drawn out Jenkins Review on PR of the late 90s before New Labour had a death bed conversion to the principle in the dying days of the Brown Government.

The new Government has successfully sold the idea that wholesale cuts will be required.

Today the Government is setting out its proposal to reform the benefit system making it more simplified and attempting to remove the poverty trap that bites when people move from benefit to work

And in the Big Society the Government seems to have hit a nerve in that people were generally irritated by the “nanny state” approach of the last administration. I experienced myself when I took my 3 month old daughter to a Sure Start Centre in Ellesmere Port in the spring of 2004 to a baby massage treatment to be told by some health visitor that white men do not know how to look after their children. I think the Big Society idea reflects that unfortunately that there were too many agents of the sate who took the view that ordinary people could not be trusted to organise their own lives. And of course it was all backed up with the target culture.

The problem with the Labour Party that all too frequently it helped to put in place some of the structures on which the new Government will build. I signed up to a facebook page that wanted to build a national protest against the new Government’s changes to the NHS. But did not Labour encourage greater use of the private sector into the NHS? Which Government pushed through Foundation status for Hospitals? Who weakened patient rights by abolishing the Community Health Council’s? Was it not Labour who continued the use of the Private Finance Initiative when they came to power in 1997? I seemed to recall Frank Dobson the first Health Secretary quietening critics by saying that PFI “was the only show in town”.

It cannot be helped that Labour has yet to choose its leader, but I consider the choice to be less than overwhelming and all with the exception of Abbot are deeply implicated in the policy decisions of the Labour administration. And in terms of personality the senior figures of the new Government seem to work well together and we do not have the grotesque farce of the eternal triangle of Blair-Brown-Mandelson continually played out consuming so much energy and time.

At the head of the Government we have David Cameron and I feel that his performance on the whole has been superlative. There was his impressive response to the findings of the Saville Inquiry on Bloody Sunday. His more reasoned approach to Britain’s relationship with the US so refreshing compared to the fawning attitude of Blair. His condemnation of the Israeli action against the Palestinians again to Blair’s apologist response to the disproportionate military action in the Lebanon in 2006. I also think that Cameron is right about the Turkish membership of the EU.

I am not a Tory supporter or am I likely to vote Tory but I am pointing out one unvarnished truth to the Labour Party that you use power to get things done and done quickly. The time and energy that New Labour spent in trying to win over the Daily Mail readership in the end was wasted effort. In the end it is about class and promoting your class interest. Labour left office with an indifferent record made the more miserable when one realises that poverty increased to levels last seen in the 1920s despite the much vaunted target on Child Poverty.

The new Government has presented a test example of the Churchillian adage of “action this day”

A Big Society project for Leek- helping ourselves.

Like others I have doubts about the concept of the Big Society. But I am prepared to explore and develop ideas if I feel that they could be to the betterment of the people of Leek. I think that there is a great deal of potential in the town, which all too often is overlooked. And I believe that the Big Society could offer something to the locality especially if people in the town could be encouraged to support an idea that develops a service that used to exist in the town but was removed.

I should explain my idea.

It is a simple one and came me again following the front page report in a local newspaper to a young man who sat by a round about with a placard saying that he was looking for work early one morning. An employer reading the board offered him a job. I was walking down Derby St in the centre of Leek and noticed a couple of jobs in windows who were looking for people for vacancies. Now evidence suggests that many jobs are not advertised in the conventional channels through the job centre or agencies. A figure of anything between 20-80% of jobs are within this hidden jobs market and a key in finding this market is to be proactive. I felt that there ought to be some mechanism where people could advertise jobs for free or alert people to work possibilities.

The problem with Leek is that there is no job centre and has not been one since 2004. The local unemployed has to travel to the Potteries to a very inferior service. I know because in 2009 I used the service myself and as a consequence of my experience I did put forward an idea for an opportunity centre in Leek. It would a place perhaps based in an unused facility such as an empty shop where people could visit who were looking for work or self employment opportunities.

I am clear that this initiative should be concerned with employment or employment opportunities. It is not concerned with volunteering opportunities there are facilities in the town that cater for volunteering.

My original idea was that self-employment might for some people be the only route out of their predicament where people could give advice who have undertaken that journey. One aspect of using the job centre was that the staff were largely unaware of the process of the journey into self employment indeed attending the Hanley Job Centre was a process which offered no opportunity to discuss possibilities. The experience of using the job centre was a very unsatisfactory one as the objective was to move you through the system as quickly as possible without discussing options or possibilities with you.

When I suggested originally in March 2009 my first thought was to use the faith community as a catalyst for setting up something. In July 2009 I attended a meeting at the Salvation Army in Leek and the captain of the local citadel was looking at bringing an Employment Plus project which the Salvation Army run in various parts of the country. This seems to have come to nought.

Shortly after I raised the issue of there not being a job centre in Leek the town was visited by a Job Centre bus provided by the County Council. This was only a short-term measure. I did call in and the service was staffed by people from the South of the County who did not have much knowledge of the local situation.

Currently there are about 1500 people who are not economically active in Leek a high proportion of them will be young people and the numbers are bound to rise as young people leave Colleges and Schools. There is also likely to be an increase following the spending cuts to be made by national and local Government. The Government is also keen that people who are in this predicament move into work into the private sector or self employment and this idea is helpful to that objective.

There are two stages to my idea firstly the setting up of a social network page through Facebook of a Leek Job Mart where jobs that exist could be flagged up and people who are looking for work can promote themselves. This is a derivative idea and I noticed that the Oatcake Stoke City supporter site has a section that helps people who are looking for work. Obviously people who know about local jobs could post them on to the Face book site and people looking for work could use it to post their details. I have used the facebook approach in setting up the Regenerate Stoke Facebook page, which has proved to be a focus for positive ideas to develop the area.

I have had a few conversations with individuals such as Marc Briand the Vice-Chairman of the Leek Chamber of Trade. The idea falls neatly into the work that has been done in town during the Save our Leek campaign against the planning application put in by Sainsbury’s.
Campaigners have argued that businesses in the town centre could generate employment without the need for the development on the edge of the town. This initiative again helps that objective.

I have a feeling that the Chamber of Trade would be supportive of the idea.

My idea is also around the concept of self-help and last year I looked at some examples in the United States of the response to the unemployment crisis of 2009-10 especially with the development of the concept of the Laidoffcamp.. LaidOffCamp is an ad-hoc gathering of unemployed and self-employed people (including entrepreneurs and start-ups) who want to share ideas and learn from each other. They exist in a number of cities such as Detroit, San Francisco and New York as well as smaller They feature an open, participatory discussion forum designed to educate, empower, and connect community members. The various presentations, workshops, and discussions focus on topics that may include: building your personal brand, transitioning to a new industry, legal & accounting demands of launching a new business, alternative working spaces, alternative income sources, and how to become a freelancer.

I have also been drawn to a case study of a programme designed to tackle worklessness in Sunderland. NESTA in a document that looked at a radical approach to delivering public services advanced the project as an example of best practice in an area that equally has resonates in North Staffs as it does in the North East. In 2007 25% of the work force in Sunderland were economically inactive which is as near as damn it is the experience in Stoke. Sunderland like Stoke have been much exercised by this problem and all the conventional approaches to turning the tide on unemployment had failed. Sunderland therefore attempted a new approach. The organisation Livework did not win the contract by saying they had all the solutions refreshingly they said they needed to clearly understand the barriers to work faced by the unemployed. By asking people they quickly concluded that the reasons why people are unemployed for long periods is complex a fact not readily understood by job centres.

This was particularly true about hard to reach groups were the connection and involvement that they made with community organisations was often very strong. Stronger, in fact than the statutory organisations. I experienced this with the metal health organisation I worked with in Manchester. They also found that there was a lack of communication and co-ordination between community groups and statutory bodies. The importance of collaboration between the agencies especially those engaged most consistently and at an earlier stage was the key.

Livework convened a number of workshops between the long-term unemployed; employers, community groups and the council included how to deliver the long-term support that the workless required.

Lifework was able to pool the various offers from community groups into a single brochure. The community groups supported the unemployed person through and supported them in their efforts to be work ready and in this goal they were supported by Sunderland Council services. More people were able to contact the job centre because they received the support of the organisation that they were most familiar with in the community, which they lived. The community groups did the outreach and support work.

I can quite see something like this working in Leek.

Locally based initiatives seem to have worked in Sunderland.
In its first stage Make It Work supported over 1,000 people, with 238 finding work. The success of the project owed something to the risk that the Council were prepared to take in handing control over to community groups funding it properly and giving it the opportunity to grow.

It is also interesting to note that Job Clubs tend to do better if they are sited in the heart of the commercial community. All too often in my experience job clubs tend to be located in buildings on the periphery of the town while research carried out in the mid 90s concluded that buildings in the heart of commercial activities do better.

Since I was looking at this as an idea there have been a number of developments. Firstly the election of a new Government in which the Big Society was a principle idea. Last week there was an announcement that the Government was looking at 4 pilot areas in England. They were also looking into seconding civil servants to push forward potential projects. I feel that a project like the community facebook job mart as well as community support through an opportunity centre might make for an attractive package.

Potential funding for such a social enterprise will come from dormant accounts and I think it would be an advantage to Leek to develop such an idea when the Government is looking for pilot projects.

There have been other developments as well.

Vision North Staffs is holding a conference in the autumn looking at ways in which redundant heritage assets of the area could be bought back into sustainable use for the benefit of the community. The plan will be to identify a number of potential assets in the area and look at ways in which Urban Vision can work with community groups to develop a heritage project that can meet a recognised need of the community

The Big Society And Civic Pride Come To Longton

Living in Longton I find this interesting.

After the great festival that Longton held a few weeks ago as part of the centenary celebrations a new website, I Love Longton, has appeared and although it is only in its infancy there seems to be the start of some civic pride going on.

Already there is some litter picking going on around the town and today ‘Radical Ed’ is going to clean the Reginald Mitchell memorial tiles in Bennet Precinct.

I have noticed on a number of occasions as I have walked through Longton that the tiled memorial looked dirty, it is bad enough it being stuck where not many people see it any more, but now it appears to be covered in the remains of a chocolate milk shake.

I suppose it is especially sad as RJ Mitchell lived in the outskirts of Longton, everyone knows he was born at Butt Lane but less people know he spent most of his early life living in Dresden.

I asked the council about it and it seems that it is the responsibility of the private landlord that owns Bennett Precinct, to clean it and the chances of that happening were ‘like getting blood out of a stone’.

The Prime Minister has launched his ‘Big Society’initiative this week and in some small way it seems to have started in Longton already. We know that there are going to be cuts locally and nationally, whether we like it or not, now in my mind we can whinge about the cuts or we can do something to make sure that the spaces where we live, shop & work remain clean and tidy, maybe even improving them a little.

Lots of people doing relatively small things can amount to something bigger happening, maybe we can’t get the railway bridge painted but at least we can do something.

I’m going to go along to get involved and try and make a small difference, what are you going to do in your town?

The Limits of the Big Society

I have been following the Big Idea the flag ship concept on which much of the Conservative Party hope to win the General election. The Tories hope that there will be people ho will be willing to engage in the Big society and want to run schools and hospitals and be more active in running organisations in their communities.

Radio 4 road tested the thought that people might be keen to do more voluntary work on the streets of Dudley in the West Midlands and found little enthusiasm to the idea that people might want to run their local schools. When asked whether people might want to volunteer for such a task there were no takers.

I have done quite a bit of voluntary work in my time. I was Chairman for North Staffs Mind for a few years and I have an association with Mind, the mental health organisation goes back to the early 80s. I currently work as a volunteer as an adviser one-day a week for the CAB and I read for one hour at my daughters primary school where I am a parent governor. I belong to a community group the Silk Town Quarter

However I get a sense that people are falling over themselves to volunteer or to be engaged in community groups. They are probably too knackered as a friend of mine opined chasing targets or working in other jobs to cover the fall in the standard of living. My position as a Parent Governor is a case in point I as the only candidate. People were unwilling to clear the ice from their doorsteps in Leek last winter it’s a responsibility they are willing to off load onto the local council so I doubt that there will be too much enthusiasm to run their local high school.

I don’t think that it was always the case a few years ago I was studying the newspapers from the 50s and it was clear that Leek as a vibrant place with many clubs and societies. Church groups were popular, kids went to scouts and guides, and sports and arts groups flourished. Political meetings were well attended.

Leek does not do too badly now for example the Transition Town Movement which I wrote about a little time ago is thriving, but it seems clear to me that the Leek today does not bear any relation in terms of social engagement to the Leek of 50 years ago.

Volunteering takes time and also requires resources my experience is that the voluntary and community sector is frequently at the bottom. In 2004 I was on the local Primary Care Trust and an allocations of resources for improving public health outcomes rather proves my point. The local voluntary sector applications accounted for 30% of all applications yet only received 0.7 % of the resources. I fear the increased use of the voluntary sector will be the cheap option.

I am also sceptical about the notion that the long term unemployed will be forced to volunteer on community programmes. Compulsory Volunteering is an oxymoron to my understanding.

One commentator citing the experience of America the volunteering experience suggested ways in which the volunteering experience in the UK could be improved. If volunteer could be incentivised through paid leave to engage in community work and improving training opportunities might be helpful

However for me there is a vacuum at the heart of this policy aspiration

Empowerment is partly about giving people the means and the motivation to be involved in decision-making, and partly about having the right structures and processes in place for ensuring that decisions, when they are taken, are taken in the right way. The Tories’ talk about Big Society, devolved decision-making etc. panders to everyone’s appreciation of being asked to be involved, but it’s devoid of any real understanding of, much less commitment to, actual empowerment.

For them, Big Society is above all an excuse to sit back and not actually have to do anything, and be completely unaccountable, because we’re all empowered to do things for ourselves now, aren’t we? It’s pure, vacuous laissez-faire conservatism thinly disguised.