Jul
19

What is Big Society?

posted on July 19th 2010 in Big Society & Democracy & News with 16 Comments

SwimmersA friend and colleague of mine, @gilest, tweeted about a report in our local paper about Wiltshire Council reviewing leisure facilities and the “imminent” closure of the Bradford on Avon swimming pool. Our brand new MP, @duncanhames picked up on the “terrible news”, but pointed out it has been planned for 18 months. A local councillor has started a petition to pressure the council to “Save Bradford on Avon Pool”.

Swimming pools are expensive to run. When you open them to the public and have to staff them, then they become very expensive. There are normally about 6 staff or so on duty, plus an administrative team at a headquarters in Bagshot, Surrey. Every week my daughter has a swimming lesson there. About £5 for 30 minutes. It’s not cheap, but the lessons are normally full.
RugbyDuring the winter, she plays rugby every Sunday. (She has an Ireland shirt, of course.) She plays, come rain or shine, for 90 minutes. Roger, the coach, does it for the love of rugby. He’s helped by some of the Dads. A few Mums cook bacon sandwiches for afterwards. Pete, the club secretary, opens the bar at 11am, for soft drinks, mostly. The coaching costs £1 per week.

The swimming pool is run by DC Leisure Ltd. on behalf of Wiltshire Council. I don’t know how much the council contributes towards the running of it, but I guess it is not insubstantial.

The Bradford on Avon Rugby Club is run by volunteers. They get some money from Sport England (I presume) and sponsorship from local businesses. Most of the cost of running the club is met by the membership fees and bar takings.

That, to me, is what Big Society* is about. It is about hanging a name on something that happens in cities, towns and villages up and down the country. It is about opening people’s eyes to different ways of doing things. I don’t think it is a new idea.

Giles and I sat down, last week, for a coffee to talk about the news. I suggested that he get a few people together and start planning how the community could run the pool. I suggested that by taking the initiative the town would be in a better position to keep the it as a going concern. He could create a community group that works like the Rugby Club. A group that relies on the efforts of its members, rather than the cost structures of a company in Surrey. That can adapt for the needs of it’s local town, rather than rely on the pressures exerted by the whole county.

That is what Big Society is to me. Local people taking control of their local facilities and making them work. The swimming pool as we know it will close. We need to choose if, we as a town, want to keep it. It needs to become our swimming pool, not the council’s. Big Society isn’t about closing council run facilities. They are going to close anyway. We can’t afford them. Big Society is a way of keeping them open.

Some commentators have questioned whether enough people have enough time in order to run these facilities.  The people who care passionately about the rugby club find time. The people who care passionately about their estates join the residents groups. The people who care passionately about education run the parents’ associations and join the board of governors.  We’ll find out soon enough how passionate people are about keeping their post offices, museums and, of course, swimming pools.

*Big Society really is a crap name, but I can’t think what to call it either. I’ve long railed against the idea of encouraging people to volunteer.  People don’t volunteer per se. They offer to run schools, clubs, charities for free.

currently there's 16 comment(s)

  • Tom

    commented on July 19, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    Problem is, people can’t do it full time. And sometimes it takes a full time individual to give a project true vision and commitment. I volunteered for Wiltshire Council for a long time, got funding to make it part time, and now the future isn’t looking very stable. Is everyone expected to get a part time wage at the co-op then help out with community services the rest of the time? Will community services only be open at weekends? But indeed, the real problem is that the country can’t afford to solve this…

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  • Shane McCracken

    commented on July 19, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    @tom – thanks for the comment. There are going to be lots of problems, but they will need solving or it will close. Maybe a full-time manager plus lots of volunteers. There are plenty of people. It’s always packed with parents seating reading and chatting whilst the kids get in the pool. We’re going to have to take turns acting as lifeguards, teachers, receptionists, marketers, barristas, etc or we won’t have somewhere for the kids to swim.
    Questions being posed are will it work in less middle-class area than BoA and how far do you stretch the idea? What services and facilities will the community rather make happen themselves as opposed to see by stopped.

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  • Andrew Brown

    commented on July 20, 2010 at 7:05 am

    Hey Shane, interesting thoughts and I’m sure your instincts are right about engendering a sense that these are our services. I’m also sure that community ownership will be picking up speed, you may remember that the last government got Barry Quirk to do some thinking about how to make it happen.
    There are however real questions about stretch, particularly with expensive things like swimming pools. The small amount that I’ve learnt about them suggest that there can be huge capital costs when things go wrong – a crack in the pool, the roof needing repair, a pump not working – which may be beyond the ability of a community group to cover.
    Nevertheless, if this Big Society thing is ever to be more than a fig leaf for the government’s cuts agenda, communities will need to be much more socially active than they have been, well ever. Do you remember the Demos paper about levels of civic activism? Let’s hope that they were unduly pessimistic about how likely we are to get out there and take part in services we say we value.
    After all, as I read this morning, it took 100 million hours to create Wikipedia, but US citizens spend 200 billion hours watching TV every year.
    BTW my Saturday mornings are much more expensive than yours and no bacon sandwiches either!

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  • Shane McCracken

    commented on July 20, 2010 at 9:14 am

    Hi Andrew. Thanks for dropping by. Can only be days before you start putting words back on your own blog 😉
    You’re not the first to warn about the big costs of swimming pools and big capital costs are a problem, and perhaps, insurmountable. BUT, the community hopefully will work out what can be achieved or not. Perhaps we’ll have to get used to not having a swimming pool; I just want the town to make that decision, not the county.
    Communities will have to be more socially active. No doubt. Fingers crossed that people step up to the challenge. I think that also means that those of us who already participate make it easier and more welcoming for those that don’t yet.
    And finally, your point about Barry Quirk and the previous government is really important. I felt there was/is an anti-Big Society sentiment because it is coming under a Conservative Coalition. That sort of reaction isn’t helpful. The ideas were there with labour. Government has known for quite some time that change is coming. There is no point fighting it. We need to grab the opportunities and run with them.

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  • Dave Mckenna

    commented on July 20, 2010 at 9:36 am

    You are right – not much new here and it is hard to see what the government is doing differently that they weren’t doing before apart from advocating and encouraging.
    I just want to pick up your phrase “It needs to become our swimming pool, not the council’s.”
    Wouldn’t it be better if people associated the council as something that was ‘ours’ rather than something external that ‘does things to us’. The demsoc blog http://www.demsoc.org/cms/node/574 asks how we can provide the ‘democratic plumbing’ for the big society (great phrase) and if this isn’t a job for local government then who? (If not the plumbing then maybe the plumber?)
    Democracy doesn’t have to be elected and noboby would argue that local government is the ideal embodiment of democracy but surely the big society would be better accountable and democratic, and surely local government has to be part of that equation.
    For me the relationship between local government and the big society will be critical and could bring benefits for both. Treating them as mutually exclusive will make both poorer.

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  • Feargal

    commented on July 20, 2010 at 9:43 am

    Great post Shane. I’m with you 100% on this. This is not for me about political ideology. Its about practicality and real life. Surely the solution to Big Costs is that when they are necessary, local fund raising includes asking county for a donation, as well as local fetes, race nites, sponsored pram races, 600 Club, Lottery funding, etc, etc. Not insurmountable. Requires hardwork and dedication. But also engenders local pride, a real sense of ownership, and fosters improved community relations. Asking others to do it for us costs more than doing it ourselves.

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  • Shane McCracken

    commented on July 20, 2010 at 9:51 am

    Dave, thanks for your comment.
    I’m a big supporter of the local democracy aspect of local government and I surely wish people felt the council’s property was there property. But I don’t think people do. I could list a hundred examples of how that is the case and I bet with your experience you could make 200 easily!
    Perhaps part of the problem in Wiltshire was the change to Unitary authority last year. Perhaps it is the way the management of the pool was handed to a company based in Surrey. Perhaps it is because councillors know they are powerless individually and have to work on county solutions (like closing most leisure facilities) rather than local ones. So I believe the answer will be local control, hopefully with the support (in some fashion) of the local authority.
    I like the idea of local government being the plumber. (Gives me ideas for a whole raft of projects 😉 ).
    But just as the community need to rise to the occasion by taking control of our facilities, local government will need to continue to adapt. And that is a whole new blog post.

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  • Shane McCracken

    commented on July 20, 2010 at 9:59 am

    @Feargal – Dead on.
    Interestingly in BoA there has been a long campaign (http://www.backthebridge.co.uk/) to build a footbridge for £750,000 to which there is some opposition. I wonder how it will fare if a group starts campaigning for £750,000 to invest in the swimming pool. We have some tough choices ahead.

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  • Janet E Davis

    commented on July 20, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    I am very curious as to what you find out about running a swimming pool. Maybe part of the Big Society aims are making people more aware and appreciative of what they get from their local authorities, and enabling them to make more informed contributions and choices thereafter.
    I should state that I have sometimes managed the operation of heritage sites open to the public. I’ve usually been more behind scenes, on the planning, strategy & policy side of managing a collection of sites). It’s not swimming pools but there are many similar issues.
    Health & Safety (there, I said it) – and the problems you get when someone gets injured on your site (and they will) – are not huge fun. I last dealt with those issues before there were solicitors suggesting to everyone that they could get quite a lot of money for any injury. I expect the insurance for allowing people in to use the swimming pool is not that cheap.
    Maintenance falls into 3 types: daily (cleaning floors, toilets, fixing the odd broken locker etc, and what Paul Clarke expressed so fragrantly); planned (things that need doing every year or 3, such as replacing worn flooring, cleaning gutters, painting the doors…), and capital projects (replacing a structurally unsound roof, renewing all plumbing, renewing the pool).
    I am very curious as to why the main providers of pools that the public can use in towns and cities are local authorities. Is it too unprofitable to run them? The fact that there are commercial providers of water play/swimming facilities indicates that they can be run for a profit. Is this just because they offer more facilities or is it how they manage them?

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  • Shane McCracken

    commented on July 20, 2010 at 7:29 pm

    Hi Janet, Thanks for the comment.
    It may well be the case that a community trust company cannot run a swimming pool, but I just hope that the BoA community give it a go, because the probably alternative is no pool.
    Rugby clubs are insured, built, maintained, renovated and cultivated. Not to the same level and expense as a swimming pool perhaps, but it is a difference in price not principle.
    I’m not enough of a historian to answer the question of why LAs provide swimming and clubs provide rugby and football. Perhaps the usage by schools? Perhaps the need for subsidy.
    That said, I’ll repeat my main point, because this isn’t about swimming pools. This is about communities being given the chance to choose to keep their facilities and services. they may not like the choice – too much work, too expensive – but the alternative is looking like closure.

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  • C Blackmore

    commented on July 21, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    It is our pool, not the council’s. The council is supposed to be working for us. If they won’t do what we want, we will need to vote them out, and do it properly ourselves.
    Big Society means getting rid of useless councillors, and running things the way we want.

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  • Shane McCracken

    commented on July 21, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    @C.Blackmore – I share your sentiment about the pool being ours, but what does that mean. It is run by a company based in Surrey, who are directed by officers in Trowbridge, who are governed by Councillors from Salisbury, Marlborough, Warminster, Malmesbury, Pewsey, Devizes etc. and 2 from Bradford on Avon.
    Unfortunately the council have to do what the whole county wants and needs.
    You’re right Big Society will mean getting rid of Councillors but only by taking control of facilities ourselves.

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  • Claire Haslam

    commented on July 22, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    Interesting post, thanks. I saw this link in the Society Guardian email, and couldn’t resist reading on when I saw it was about Bradford-on-Avon, where I grew up and where I learned to swim, no less. I suppose now that I live in London I’m an outside commentator, but I’m also a fundraiser and the ‘big society’ notion isn’t the only way forward. After all, it is essentially about asking people to contribute their ‘private’ resources twice: once to the state in the form of taxation; and once again to the facilities and services that said taxes used to pay for.
    What if we turned this around and resisted marketising access to swimming, and instead declared swimming a community good to which all children and adults should have free access? Perhaps then we would need to rethink having such services provided by companies who require the generation of profit.
    And if you wanted to go down the fundraising route, whether in making up an operating shortfall or amassing the necessary funds to get a community enterprise model off the ground, there are hundreds and thousands of people like me out there who learned to swim in those pools: who queued up on the side waiting to dive in on command from the teacher; who swallowed half the pool water and snorted it back out again, red-eyed; who had rides on their mum’s backs up and down the lengths; who paddled along with their floats long after they were fed up and exhausted, and who will never forget the aroma of chlorine and beef monster munch that went with them every time they left the pool.
    I can’t afford it, but you can have £20 from me – and I would have given it regardless of all this state-shrinking big society crap.
    Long live BOA swimming pool!

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  • Shane McCracken

    commented on July 22, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    Lovely comment Claire. The “aroma of chlorine and monster munch” is wonderfully evocative. Thank you.
    We could resist the marketising of services such as swimming but in the end someone has to pay for it and it would seem the government has ‘run out of money’. So it is a case of prioritising where that money gets spent. Health, education, defence etc. In Wiltshire it seems the decision has been made that swimming is not a priority. Many people think that decision is wrong and it is my view that that we as a community need to do something about it, but I don’t think we will be able to change the minds of the council. BoA is only a small part of Wiltshire.
    Please don’t send me £20 ;-), not only should it be unnecessary (for I think Wiltshire would pay a community trust to take the pool off their hands early), but Patrick Butler, who wrote the Guardian article, sent me a message apologising in advance if I found myself chairing the local action group. That’s not one for me. I’m not passionate enough about swimming, but I sincerely hope that those who are (like yourself) do something about it.
    PS love your pictures

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  • Emma Hallett

    commented on August 3, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    From:http://www.portisheadopenairpool.org.uk/
    “The Portishead Open Air Pool is now being managed by the Portishead Pool Community Trust, and is no longer a North Somerset Council facility. The pool is operated by teams of volunteers, together with paid Pool Manager and Life Guard staff.”
    They have been running it like this for a couple of years now and it has a fantastic (community) atmosphere.
    It can be done.

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  • Shane McCracken

    commented on August 4, 2010 at 8:33 am

    @Emma, Thanks for providing a more local answer. Along with the NE examples it demonstrates that if people really want to, they can control their local facilities. Communities need to become more open-minded about the possibilities.

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