Being somewhat naive I believed the term ‘Big Society’ issued by David Cameron in 2010 meant becoming kinder, more thoughtful to our friends and neighbours but no, that isn’t what he meant. The Big Society was the flagship policy idea of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto. It now forms part of the legislative programme of the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement. What is stated says that they want to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will take power away from politicians and give it to people. While some have responded to the policy favourably, its aims have been queried and disputed by other commentators. This policy does not apply here in Wales nor Ireland or Scotland.
Of course what we know is that empowering means encouraging local people to become volunteers to take on the work where costs have to be cut by local governments. Civic participation and community empowerment are at the heart of the so called big society and seem to resound strongly in Wales. However when libraries, local amenities, like boys clubs, swimming pools, day centres etc lose some of there funding then volunteers are grouped together to raise funds and help to save the situation. Even here in Wales although all of this is happening we do not refer to it as the ‘Big Society’. The conservatives came up with this so called inventive process as if it were something new. We of course know that it already happening in British society without it having to be named as such. Big society just puts a tag to something that millions of volunteers know and are already very involved in on a day to day basis.
Who but volunteers helps sustain hospices, clubs for the elderly, boys clubs, homelessness and crisis groups of various kinds? You might have seen the program ‘Secret Millionaire’ where some individual gives away money to help community projects who are losing funding and so on so. We do know that there are lot of charitable community projects which are run by volunteers constantly seeking help from someone in order to stay open.
So raising funds to maintain libraries is a difficult process as I am finding out as Chair of a Steering Committee to make Penrhyn Bay Library into a community library. Primarily a group of volunteers came together thus forming a committee which has to manoeuvre its way through the maze of organisations in order to fulfil the legal obligations like health and safety, recruitment of volunteers, fund raising and so on. We need to have a constitution and make a business plan thus becoming more than just a volunteer. All of this requires one to be a diplomat, administrator, PA, manager, and fundraiser etc.
This term ‘Big Society’ applies only to domestic policy in England not here in Wales and yet we too are now threatened with the closure of libraries and other amenities and choices have to be made. With an aging population and limited funds governments have to decide which is the priority, care of the elderly or local services? At one time within society, care of the elderly was taken on by family members but for various reasons like family dynamics, woman working full time and families constrained by cost of living, many have relied upon local social services for the care of their elderly. Instead of the old and infirm being taken in by family, they find themselves alone and reliant upon a door to door system of care which, as it stands is not working either.
Should our so called big society analogy be about priorities and should we volunteers be thinking in terms of how we can care for our elderly and dependant members of society or should we be concentrating on saving amenities? It’s a difficult question and one I cannot answer, but I am a volunteer in the process of navigating myself through a system of finding some funding and what this means is with the help of the council we take on responsibility for the maintenance and day to day running of a small library which has to become viable and financially self supporting. We have been marvellously suffused with people putting themselves forward to help and we need everyone who comes forward. I fortunately am not in a position to have to decide what should or shouldn’t be saved. My focus is to help make Penrhyn Bay Library into a community library and this means making it into a place where people can meet and socialise as well as find a good book.
We are looking at various ways the library can be utilised for example maybe exhibiting paintings of local artists for a fee. Perhaps putting on a small craft fair? We could invite interesting speakers’ and so on. It would be wonderful to invite a local writer to come and promote their novel by giving seminars on the written word. We also plan to have larger fundraising occasions like fun days and coffee mornings. We have many ideas for the future of the library and everything we do and plan to do is not only to raise money but also the profile of libraries in general.
One might ask why would we want to save a library in this day and age, when kids have the computer and can down load their books onto a Kindle, where knowledge is easy to obtain through the use of the www but do we really want to lose something so precious as a place where books are lovingly kept and free to borrow, where all generations can peruse together the wonders of the written word? Lets face it to lose the library would be like burning books in the town square wouldn’t it?
We do not need the term ‘Big Society’ to describe what the thousands of volunteers do every day here in North Wales. For me the ‘Big Society’ concept means government and volunteers working together when taking on community projects. We can no longer take local amenities for granted therefore we have to be prepared to take them on. Perhaps we can learn to trust our governments if they work closely with us in maintaining essential services.