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Michael Burnett: I have seen the Big Society at work...but it just happens to be in Germany and the Netherlands

Screen shot 2011-11-16 at 18.16.52Michael Burnett was a candidate for the European Parliament in the West Midlands in 2009

Is it really possible to engage citizens in caring about their communities? Or have we gone too far down the route to believing that “It’s the state’s job to create healthy communities”? In what circumstances can the ideas of civic engagement which underlie the Big Society be most fruitfully applied?

Two recent visits to continental Europe to different countries and different types of community have given me greater clarity about how and where the Big Society might flourish. Firstly, I visited Borne, a small municipality of around 21,500 inhabitants in the eastern Netherlands, which is relatively socially and ethnically homogeneous.

The municipality of Borne has had a history of citizen consultation on its future developments, but wanted to deepen this approach by creating a widely shared vision for the future of the community through engagement of civil society and citizens in the decision making process for the future of the community and as a starting point for joint action. What was it that impressed me about Borne’s initiative, apart from the obvious enthusiasm of the people who I met?

  • The willingness of local politicians and municipal officials to take the risk of offering choice to citizens within a clearly articulated framework.  Bourne's politicians were taking the risk that, if citizens make direct choices, their roles may become less relevant.
  • The genuine nature of the choice of different strategic visions offered by the municipality, rather than consultation on a single strategy. This was done via a civic referendum, in which the opportunity to vote was also extended to anyone aged 15 or over, and in which on-line voting was permitted, thus engaging the next generation of voters in a process which will impact on their lives
  • The unity of purpose amongst all stakeholders (municipal officials, more than 20 partner organisations and politicians from different parties) to use this process to shape the future of Borne The clear understanding of the need to translate the vision of “Mijn Borne 2030” into an implementation plan in order to meet the expectations of citizens created by this project and there are processes for doing so.
  • The understanding of the need to start this process of implementation by reflecting it in the budgetary decisions of the municipality for 2012 and in the internal organisation of the municipality.
Secondly, I visited Münster, a city of around 270,000 inhabitants in North-Rhine Westphalia and home to more than a hundered different nationalities. “Show Colours for Münster” (perhaps a better translation from the German would be “Münster - Showing its true colours”) is a continuing campaign (launched in 2006) as the vehicle to engage the citizens of Münster in the improvement and upkeep of green spaces in the city and a lake within the city boundaries.

Using this vehicle, many projects and activities have been undertaken with money and time donated by citizens. It aims to strengthen the identity of citizens with their home town, develop civic spirit and secure a high quality of life in the city. I came away with several positive impressions including the following:

  • There is no reason why this campaign – which is the branding for a series of individual projects - cannot continue to be sustained given the fact that it is a project which relies as much on the high level of enthusiasm already shown by citizens and businesses (and the support of the local media) as the resources of the city.
  •  The level of public enthusiasm and financial contributions from citizens and businesses generated by the project is very high (more than €500,000 contributed in cash or materials for environmental improvements and 3,300 suggestions in response to a public consultation in 2010).
  • There was a unity of purpose amongst politicians from different parties to support the campaign, so that if a change in the political direction occurred, the policy would probably not change significantly.
  • The extension of the campaign into areas with predominantly social housing.
  • One small but striking feature in the city was use of creative art on utility junction boxes (sponsored by a local energy company), a welcome contrast to the graffiti with which they are often disfigured.

What are common themes from these two apparently diverse examples?

  • The importance of a long-standing belief in the value of community solidarity to improve the quality of life. It may be coincidence, but in both communities Catholicism, and echoes of its traditional sense of social mores and constraints underpinning community behaviour, is a prominent force. Alastair Campbell may have famously said that “we don’t do God” but there is a framework of responsible citizenship – whether religious or secular - lying somewhere between the excesses of the alcohol-fuelled individualism which blights towns and suburbs in the United Kingdom - unrelated to the summer riots – and the pressure for conformity which acts as a social constraint on behaviour in the cultures of some continental European countries.
  • The idea that government doesn’t have all the solutions: it has not pretended in either of these municipalities that it does have all the answers.
  • In both Borne and Münster, there is a readiness to adapt civic structures and processes to respond to citizen engagement.
  • The importance of political consensus in encouraging citizens to believe that these initiatives are not transient and thus are worth investing time in. Put simply, a change in the political balance of these authorities may lead to some of the practical aspects of implementation being changed but is not likely to lead to fundamental change in direction away from the encouragement of citizen engagement.
  • Above all, the obvious point that if you create something to be proud of, and give people a sense of belonging, citizens are more likely to support their communities than to trash them.

What conclusions for the future of the Big Society in the United Kingdom can be drawn from these experiences?

Firstly, that high levels of civic engagement are possible in different kinds of community, both in Borne (small and relatively socially and ethnically homogeneous) and Münster, a medium-sized city with more than 100 different nationalities.

Secondly, it takes time to nurture civic engagement. Both Borne and Münster have had a history of civic engagement over time, so the latest developments have occurred in an environment where citizens are accustomed to dialogue with the local administrations and expect that they will be listened.

These examples do not act as a blueprint for what we should do - and nor should we expect to be able to copy them directly. But they do reveal how far British society has, to use David Cameron’s word in the context of the summer riots, become sick and how far we are from having the foundations for the Big Society. So for me the main lesson is that our aim in our first term be to prepare the ground with a more ambitious implementation of the Big Society to come after 2015.


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