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The Big Society in Barnet

Harper Cllr Andrew Harper, the Deputy Leader of Barnet Council, gave the following speech to this week's Reform conference

Let me begin with some context.  Barnet is London’s biggest borough – our population is rising 350,000; we are one of the largest unitary authorities in the country; our revenue budget for this year is £904m – we are a big business.

In Barnet, we have been talking for some time about how we open up our services to greater localism, greater resident involvement.

There are two key reasons for this.

Firstly social – we feel the balance of social responsibility has swung too far in the direction of the state – many of us in Barnet quote a headline in one of our local papers about changes in support for residents in sheltered housing: “The neighbours forced to care”, it read. The article went on to say that outraged residents complained that they were now checking on their elderly neighbours each day to make sure they were OK.  What can I say but “Good”. I think it is worrying that our society has ever felt that caring can simply be a fiscal action – and that it can be delegated in its entirety to the state.

The second reason for opening up to resident involvement is our financial challenge. As with every council, changing demographics are putting huge pressures on our services. Barnet is a suburb with good schools and an ageing population. This means that over the next five years we will be hit by a double whammy in financial terms – a 12 per cent rise in the number of 4 to 16 years olds in the borough and an 11 per cent rise in the number of residents over the age of 85.

If we run our current services with no change in delivery model or income level, by 2022 we will be spending our entire income solely on providing adult and children’s social services. Just to emphasis that – all of our budget - nothing on street cleaning, nothing on waste collection, nothing on green spaces, nothing on libraries.

Let’s not pretend that even at its most hypothetical that would be acceptable to anyone.

This means we need to look at services in the round and see how we can widen responsibility. Caring for older people mustn’t just be the responsibility of the council. We have to ask what the community is going to do to look after older people and what role the council will play in that. This council role will obviously be key, but it won’t be the totality of care.

But this wider involvement of the community, will mean that councils have to change the way we relate to the community.

We should not simply be providers of services. I’m a great believer in councils becoming enablers and catalysts of activity.

A good example of how we will need to change in Barnet comes from our changes to the management of allotments. In a true Big Society way, we want to free our allotments of council control. Frankly what you grow on an allotment, or how you administer the group, should be a matter for your plot neighbours and not for the council. So we are proposing that allotments become self managing.

There has been a great deal of enthusiasm for this and we expect about 80 percent of our allotments to be self managed by the end of the year.

However this has not been an easy process…

In our first meetings with allotment holders they asked us, very reasonably, that if they were going to take over running their allotments they would like to know how much it would cost them to run them.

We replied by telling them just how much it cost the council to run allotments, which of course was not what they wanted to know – it took a couple of attempts for us to give them the information in the form they wanted it, a learning process for us and them!

Similarly, our first attempt at a lease for allotments was much too long – a second attempt to give them an appropriate lease seems much more successful.

We have found similar challenges in running our Barnet Pledgebank – this allows residents to commit to a community activity, but only if other residents agree to join in. This worked best during the royal wedding when the council offered to cover insurance costs if three households or more stepped in to run events. Over 50 street parties were run, with a further dozen events taking place during the Big Lunch event a couple of weekends ago..

We have had success with finding volunteer trainers to work in libraries to support IT training for the public. Here the council offered equipment and space if trainers came forward which they promptly did.

On the back of these lessons we are examining how we can develop our ‘offer’ to encourage community activity. For instance, around youth activity, we are looking at how we can simplify the process of individuals getting a CRB check to work in a voluntary basis with young people.

So it is not simply enough for us to step back and expect the public to fill the gaps we leave.  We need to look at how the council can act as a catalyst for residents to create an activity that doesn’t simply replicate what the council use to provide. We need to look at how we can encourage activity that is greater than the sum of parts.

We need to rethink council services and place them in the context of wider community activity. We have to search for what the council can do with residents rather than simply for residents. As the allotment example shows, in Barnet we are some way from being in a position to do this, but we like to think we have started out along this road and we certainly believe it’s the right way to go.


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