Join Our Society for the Big Society anniversary reality check event

Big Society is reaching it’s first birthday as a manifesto, a network, and set of ideas and principles that have shaped many Coalition government policies. On Thursday in London the far more modest, less contentious, non-partisan Our Society is holding a big society reality check. I hope you’ll join us online or in person.

A year ago this week David Cameron, then in opposition, led a seminar to launch Big Society as the Conservative manifesto, and then walked down the road to the Thames-side OXO building to launch the Big Society Network, developed by Paul Twivy and Nat Wei.

Paul was the chief executive of the network, which was to be a mass-membership organisation. One of the ideas was a project called Your Square mile, to support local social action.

I received invites courtesy of Steve Moore, who I had worked with in the past, and who was doing a lot of behind the scenes organising.

I don’t think any commentators at the time expected Big Society to be as politically significant as it has been – like it or not.

Today Steve is director of the network – which is focussing on events, social enterprise, participatory budgeting and innovative projects. It doesn’t recruit members. Paul Twivy is heading up Your Square Mile, with £830,000 of Big Lottery funding announced last week as part of People Powered Change, with an ambition to have 15 million members. Nat Wei is in the Lords, as Government adviser.

During that year Our Society was formed as network, growing out Big Society in the North, to provide people with a space to celebrate their achievements in local communities, share experience, and work out how to survive and make the best of the changes Big Society was bringing. I’m a founder member, with others you can see here. We are volunteers, and currently have over 460 members. I think it is fair to say it is currently the only substantial, open, independent forum dedicated to discussion of Our/Big/Good Society.

As Our Society co-founder Julian Dobson wrote last week – remarking on the conjunction of the anniversary, and job losses through cuts:

So it’s a good time to give the big society a reality check – to test the pulse and see if it’s healthy or requires intensive care.

Is a stronger civic ecosystem emerging outside the state in response to the social, economic and environmental challenges we face – or is it disintegrating as government-funded infrastructure disappears?

We know everyone will have their own take on this. The big society enthusiasts will want to demonstrate that David Cameron’s big idea is alive and well, and thriving in adversity. The naysayers will point to every cut and argue that the lifeblood is draining from our communities. The real picture is likely to be much more nuanced.

So next week there’s a chance to see the bigger picture. Our Society will be presenting the Big Society Reality Check: a 90-minute event that asks whether big society is living up to its promises and offers some thoughts on how it could be better.

We’re putting the event on in partnership with Walterton and Elgin Community Homes (WECH), an example of what big society could look like if it’s allowed to work well. WECH has been going for nearly 20 years and emerged from the struggle of local people in west London to prevent their homes being sold to developers. It’s an example of the kind of community ownership the government says it wants more of – and WECH has amassed plenty of evidence to show the positive effects of its approach (the video above gives one resident’s views).

We’ll also ask what needs to happen to ensure there are more success stories like this. We’ll examine how some of the key criticisms of big society should be addressed, and there’ll be the opportunity for those who come along to share their own views and experiences

What’s different is that we’re not doing this on behalf of government or a commercial organisation. We’re doing it because as a network of engaged citizens we feel it needs to happen – and we don’t need permission to be involved in the debate. We hope you’ll join us.

The event is free, on March 31 from 1pm – 2.30pm.  You can book in here, find who else is coming, and further information. We’ll welcome Big Society romantics, sceptics, critics … or just the curious.

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