Tuesday 15 February 2011

The dust settles around Big Society

You can imagine the scene. I'm in the gym. With my personal trainer and I step off the running machine to do an interview with BBC Radio Sheffield. On my mobile. Quite what the good burghers of Sheffield thought of the heavy pumping gym music heaven knows. They must have wondered quite where I was. But of course it was Big Society. I was in Brixton Rec; a social enterprise!

Mind you, this scene may be difficult to imagine. Exercise and Bubb seem an improbable combination! I also get a text from my Vice Chair the magnificent Ms Social enterprise London to tell me "woke up,turned on the TV and you were not on it. Are you well?"

And I admit after a marathon 23 separate media interviews I'm fair whacked nd have taken the morning off. I need to do some essential grooming! I'm at Windsor Castle on Friday for my Investiture. I'm beginning to get nervous. Will HM spot my bald patch as I kneel before her? But my nails are clean and my Morning Suit is well pressed.

So where are we on Big Society? No new announcements but I detect a change of tone that augurs well.

# there is now a stronger emphasis on public service reform and charity and social enterprise delivery- with practical and important measures to back that up.

# at last there is a recognition that cuts damage the story. I hope we will soon see an end to silly spin about "the majority of charities don't get any public funding". Of course they don't. The majority of charities are the cricket and bowling clubs, the bird watches and railway enthusiast, the bell ringers and keepers of the village hall fabulous people who make Britain a better place to live. But they are not delivering key public services. They are not at the front line in saving lives and providing care and compassion to the vulnerable. And it is those charities and community groups that are having their grants and contracts slashed. And our beneficiaries who suffer. So less of it, Nick and Francis.

# there are signs that the Government may want to do something about council cuts and provide more " bossiness" (as DC said in his speech yesterday)

# the mystic meg groupies that surround the project are being reigned in. The problem with all new political ideas is that they attract the zealous evangelicals who think this is the new time religion. Yesterday's launch was not quite tambourine time but the intro by John Bird was bizarre. Hopefully we will have less of the "one day we will each encounter it in our daily lives wherever we live, and work, and play - at which point we will instinctively say, "that's Big #Society"!

# there are signs they want to listen to and involve the sector's Leaders. A partnership approach rather than a solipsistic, year zero, one. Perhaps that means we can ensure the much touted Community organisers arrive minus the tambourines!

# the Budget is due in March. I will be astonished if there is not an announcement to help the sector;

# and most important of all was yesterday's launch of the Big Society Bank. This is one of those historic moments. It's a world leader as Sir Ronnie Cohen pointed out. Our sector needs access to capital. The great example of Futurebuilders shows the way. This is essential to build our capacity to deliver more public services. I was at the launch and I paid public tribute to Ronnie and to Nick Hurd MP and to Francis Maude, MP, who have driven this through. They understood the power of the idea and its potential. So credit where credit is due.

And finally it is nice to be getting emails from members egging me on and saying thanks for pushing the charity case. I thought I would share one as an example of what we face as a sector.

"your continual argument that Charities cannot do their work without the infrastructure and funding from various parts of government is much appreciated.

As the CE of Red Balloon Learner Centres, a charity that recover severely bullied children, we are at the point where we need to know what is happening vis a vis funding - or the future is bleak for this group of children.

Red Balloon started in 1996 in Cambridge. For 13 years we existed with the support of the local authorities who recognised the valuable work we were doing and have paid around £15K per year per child for their children to be recovered. (A full time academic and personal and social education designed to get them back to school - we recover 95% of these children). The target group were 'ordinary' children who had been severely bullied - not children with special educational needs in the accepted sense of the word. They are eminently recoverable given a recovery programme.

Over the past two years that funding for ordinary children has been reduced and cut until now only those with Statements are being funded. The children we were set up to recover were self-excluders, academically able, willing to learn, wanting to behave and above all needing a safe place to be. They were not willing to go to school to be further bullied. They were not Statemented, nor did they have Special Educational Needs.

We thrived in this environment and grew to open three other Red Balloon centres one in Norwich, Harrow, Merseyside. There are six further centres on the cards, Warwick, Reading (with houses, staff and ready to go if the funding for children was there.

We have put the expansion programme on hold and are now seeing if we can hold out by keeping the four centres open and running despite the cuts. It is unlikely we will be able to survive longer than September 2011

This is the human face of cuts. I wish Carrie Herbert well in her task of getting support. It is a salutary reminder of what we face and why I will continue to harry the Government on cuts.

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