Most people will be aware that Our Society grew out of an earlier network called "Big Society in the North" which was formed partly because of a feeling that thinking on the Big Society was being driven by London-based individuals and organisations who did not fully realise the impact of their actions and pronouncements on communities in northern England. One of the reasons why Big Society in the North evolved into Our Society was that we soon found that feeling was not confined to the north, and, if truth be told, it's probably felt in Hackney, Deptford, Harlesden, Brixton and Shoreditch too. Although the big difference is that most (but not all) of inner city London is a relatively short tube ride away from Westminster.
It has to be said that the perception which provided our initial impetus has not gone away. So, the Prime Minister "re-launches" Big Society in Somerset House, and then visits the People's Supermarket, which is a great initiative, but is a world away from the every day lives of the people I spent part of yesterday with on a social housing estate in Gateshead. Decisions are being made behind closed doors in London. Meetings are being called at short notice, at inconvenient times, in London, and the attitude is that, if it really matters to you, you'll be there, even if it means getting up at 3:30am and spending £250 on a return train ticket, or taking two days out for an overnight stay in the capital. I myself have been at London meetings where I've been the only one from outside the M25, but the consensus has been that all views in the nation are being encompassed. And there have been many, many, more meetings where there has been no one present who couldn't get there on the tube.
And the public spending cuts are making this situation worse. They mean that civil servants and politicians are less likely to have the budget to travel to see communities in action, and individuals and organisations from outside London are less likely to be able to afford to travel to London to take part in meetings. Maybe the old northern adage is true after all, "they do things differently in that London", but what they do affects us all.
Everybody is welcome in Our Society, and that definitely includes groups and organisations wanting to improve their communities in Hackney, Shoreditch, Brixton, Deptford, Harlesden and anywhere else inside the M25. But, one thing Our Society MUST do is to stand up for the communities that are struggling to make their voices heard where the decisions are taken in Westminster, the City and other points within stone-throwing distance of the Thames. There is no excuse in 2011 for meetings being held that are not open to the wider public gaze via live streaming, blogging and tweeting, etc. Indeed, Eric Pickles has recently lambasted local authorities for not letting people into their public meetings to do just this, so Whitehall and the agencies leading the Localism and Big Society agendas must follow suit. And, if you must have all your meetings in London, you can at least hold them at reasonable times and pay people's expenses to get there.
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