Cultural Playing Field

Building the Big Society in Wales by Robin Simpson
September 16, 2011, 10:58 am
Filed under: meetings | Tags: , , , ,

I was in Newport on Monday to take part in a seminar called ‘Building the Big Society in Wales’. When Aled and I met David Jones, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, in May, the Minister told us he was planning this seminar. Given the difficulty of trying to progress the UK Government’s Big Society agenda in Wales, where the Welsh Assembly Government is of a different political hue, David Jones had done a very good job of gathering together a substantial range of representatives of civil society in Wales. The event was jointly presented by the Wales Office and the Cabinet Office and the Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, was present to speak about the Government’s vision of the Big Society. David Jones opened the seminar by stressing that Big Society is nothing new. He said “Big Society is something that has been going on for a long time, particularly in Wales. The Government isn’t claiming credit for inventing the Big Society: the Government wants more of it and to help organisations like yours to expand, to grown and to do more”. Nick Hurd added that “two very small words have triggered a hell of a debate”. He said suggestions that Big Society was cover for cuts or empty rhetoric are myths: “It’s a debate that really matters. It’s a debate about responsibility and how communities work, how public services could and should be delivered. And it is even more important in the light of the riots that shocked us all.” Nick Hurd argued that “successive governments have transferred too much power and responsibility to the state and have lost something in terms of community vitality: is that what we really want?” He said “of course there are good examples all over the country: there is nothing new about Big Society. We’re not inventing something here: we are shining a spotlight on activities we want to encourage.” Nick Hurd stressed “this is about much more than just volunteering: it is a big transfer of power to communities. Don’t underestimate the potential for change.” He said the role of charities and social enterprises was very important to this project. There are three main opportunities:

  • to do more in relation to public services
  • to give voice to people who would otherwise struggle to be heard
  • to provide opportunities for more people to volunteer

But Nick Hurd admitted this is a difficult time for the sector with much less money around.

As well as hearing from the two Ministers, the seminar included presentations by Nick O’Donohoe, the Chief Executive of Big Society Capital (a social investment bank funded from dormant bank accounts and the four major UK banks) and the winner of Welsh Social Enterprise Leader 2011, Sharon Jones, the Director of the inspiring Crest Co-operative in North Wales.

At the end of the seminar David Jones concluded that the groups around the room seemed generally well-disposed towards the Big Society concept, if not the Big Society brand or name. He announced plans to establish a Big Society Advisory Group for Wales and invited those present to suggest potential members for this group.

Robin Simpson.

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