The key plank of the coalition government, David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is viewed by some as the answer to our problems, and by others as a glimpse of the ‘spin’ to come.
Essentially, the idea can’t be faulted – why wouldn’t it be good to get citizens to take direct responsibility for their own communities? But the difficulty begins when we attempt to define ‘communities’. Take the ward of Sherwood in my own constituency. For many residents of properties worth hundreds of thousands on the Pembury Road, or the maze of private closes off Sandown Park, the idea that they reside in "Sherwood" is an alien concept.
The same can be said also for residents of the roads off Oak Road – they’re not living on the Sherwood Estate; they’re Oak Road residents. In some locations, just two or three roads could be a world away.
Yet this is surely just the kind of ‘sense of place’ on which Cameron’s localism agenda is based. We simply need to find a way to harness people’s sense of pride in where they live and those around them.
And we won’t do that with a snappy strapline or logo. We won’t do by telling people to be proud of where they live. We’ll do it through trust – not the box-ticking, headline-grabbing ‘trust’ which simply lengthens the lead around the neck of a community. Real trust means allowing failure to create success. It means building relationships over time, not writing ‘inclusive strategies’ in which not a line has been written by those professed to be included.
Lord Wei, Cameron’s ‘Big Society guru’ has a big job on his hands. He must first tap into the aspirations of a generation who have been sold out and written off by successive agencies of power. He must open a true channel of communication, which allows for aspiration and dreams and ambition.
And then he must persuade David Cameron to deliver against managed expectations. Because without all these things, Cameron’s Big Society will be no more credible than Blair’s Big Conversation of yesteryear.
And if the wrapping ever tears away, and this turns out to be just the latest way of saving money and providing cheap services, people will lose their last vestige of trust in Government for a generation.