Written evidence submitted by North West
Environment Link (BS 56)|
1. North West Environment Link welcomes the opportunity
to submit evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee
on the Big Society. We support the Government's aspiration to
empower communities and civil society groups to improve their
quality of life, and shape the areas in which they live and the
services which they receive.
2. North West Environment Link (NWEL) is a partnership
of environmental voluntary sector organisations, representing
hundreds of thousands of members in the North West. NWEL is the
only forum for environmental NGOs to meet, network, develop a
collective voice and present a single focused and effective case
on the key environmental issues affecting the North West.
3. In October 2010 NWEL convened a conference
on "Big Society and the Environment" The overall aim
of the conference was to draw on the experience of a wide range
of civil society groupsthe people already deeply involved
in working with communities, in doing and being the Big Societyto
develop a realistic and informed picture of the opportunities
presented by the Government's Big Society agenda, the barriers
to realising those opportunities, and potential solutions.
4. The recommendations arising from the conference
were derived from a detailed analysis of participants input. They
are intended to be of use to national and local Government in
playing their part in ensuring that the potential for a genuine
Big Society is realised, and to civil society groups in taking
their work forwards. The recommendations to Government form the
basis of this response, and they cut across many of the questions
on which the Committee have particularly asked for evidence.
5. While welcoming the aspiration to increase
community involvement in decision making and service delivery,
we are concerned that the drive towards a "Big Society"
does not undermine any of civil society current worthwhile aims
and work and that Government recognises that without a properly-funded
supporting infrastructure, in many places the Big Society concept
will flounder. In this submission we would like to emphasise the
following key points:
and national Government must ensure that they continue to invest
in the capacity of civil society groups and organisations to build
and enable the Big Society.
need access to information and meaningful engagement with decision-makers
at all levels.
and local Government have a responsibility to be responsive to
civil society groups performing a "watchdog" role.
is vital for the success of the Big Society that safeguards are
built in to ensure that particular geographic areas or communities
of interest are not disadvantaged.
is a need for co-ordination at a larger-than-local level to ensure
that the wider national goal of sustainable development within
environmental limits is achieved, and to address environmental
issues on the physical scale at which they exist.
strategy and investment decisions, and messages from Government,
need to be clear that deficit reduction and economic growth must
be achieved within the context of improving wellbeing and respecting
is vital that increased delivery of public services by the voluntary
and community sector does not compromise the independence of those
organisations involved in service delivery, or their ability to
effectively campaign to improve conditions for the people or environment
of the UK or to secure policy change.
6. There was a lot of enthusiasm at the NWEL
conference about the potential for involving more people in engaging
with, caring for, protecting and improving the environment. Every
participant was able to illustrate how community participation
had delivered real benefits to communities and to the environment
7. However, an almost universal strand to emerge
was that without the supporting infrastructure, the chances
of successful and sustained community action are massively reduced.
Real community participation and leadership is essential for any
civil society group or grassroots "movement", but a
key success factor is often the involvement of paid staff, either
from the voluntary or public sectors, who are able to provide
support such as:
legal and financial advice;
knowledge and expertise;
projects and maintaining momentum through difficult times;
and "institutional memory"; and
new and existing "activists" and volunteers.
8. The returns to society, the economy and the
environment as a whole as a result of the increases in quality
and quantity of community action delivered by this investment
in civil society "infrastructure" are immense. It is
the oil which enables the Big Society machine to function. Local
and national Government must ensure that they continue to invest
in the capacity of civil society groups and organisations to build
and enable the Big Society. Without this empowering resource
the whole concept is unlikely to succeed. This is particularly
the case in communities (of interest as well as geographical)
that currently experience disadvantage.
9. Without the support and continuity provided
by both frontline and infrastructure voluntary sector organisations,
and in many cases by local authorities (Local Agenda 21 officers
and their successors were cited as being successful public sector
catalysts and "maintainers" of community action), there
is a severe risk that community achievements and learning will
be lost as groups lose momentum, or volunteer leaders and organisers
move on, move away or otherwise cease to be involved, with the
result that the same problems will continually re-emerge and attempts
will be made to tackle them from scratch on a cyclical basis.
There is also a need to build a strong community infrastructure
to ensure continuity, and not to rely heavily on one or two charismatic
individuals to drive action forwards.
10. While we acknowledge the Government's commitment
to train 5,000 community organisers, we are unclear as to the
relationship they will have with existing organisers and civil
society groups. There are many thousands of people already doing
this type of work and they need to be supported to continue and
expand their reach, not be put in competition with a new initiative.
11. The Big Society agenda is all about empowering
people and communities at a grassroots level. This is a clear
message from Government and was also a theme that repeatedly surfaced
in our discussions, along with the role of civil society groups
in contributing to and harnessing that empowerment.
12. We address above the need for enabling support
to empower communities to take positive actions and maintain the
gains they make. But for the Big Society to be really meaningful,
communities and civil society groups need to be engaged in the
major decisions that affect their areas, as well as in direct
service delivery and other activity. For people to be genuinely
empowered to make change and to help shape their communities and
environments, there are some pre-requisites that national and
local Government must deliver.
13. Firstly, people need access to information.
Government has made some very positive commitments about access
to information held by the public sector. There is a need to follow
this commitment through by ensuring that all relevant information
is available in good time and in as easily accessible and understandable
a form as possible.
14. Secondly, people need access to and meaningful
engagement with decision-makers at all levels. The vision
for a Big Society simply will not work if people are excluded
from or sidelined in participation in important decisions that
affect their locality. A fairer, greener planning system with
the clear purpose of delivering sustainable development, ie development
which meets social, environmental and economic goals in an integrated
manner is one key means of achieving this.
15. However, it is not the only one and local
authorities must ensure that their communities and civil society
have a clear and transparent means of engaging with all influential
bodies. For example, it appears likely that the ways and extent
to which Local Enterprise Partnerships will engage with civil
society groups and communities of interest will vary widely across
the country. The deliberations and decisions of bodies like Local
Enterprise Partnerships must be open to public scrutiny and accountability.
16. National and local Government also have
a responsibility to be responsive to civil society groups performing
a "watchdog" role, using their experience on the
ground to alert Government to cases where the Big Society approach
is not working, and suggesting solutions to deliver better outcomes.
17. In specifically environmental terms, the
cuts to the statutory environmental agencies, Natural England,
the Environment Agency and English Heritage, will limit their
ability to engage with Local Authorities (eg in the development
of Local Development Framework documents or responding to major
planning applications), and there will be a need for the voluntary
and community sector to fill this gap, to work more closely with
those agencies, and for Local Authorities to recognise and respect
18. The concern with the impact of Big Society
on equalities was particularly noteworthy given that this was
en event focused specifically the implications of Big Society
for the environment. This demonstrates the inextricability of
social, environmental and economic issues.
19. We recognise that Government has said that
Big Society should not be about those who already have "loud
voices" (and the confidence, skills, time and other resources
to dominate and capture resources) becoming even more dominant,
but rather about empowering and building the capacity of people
and communities who have little "voice" to make the
changes they want to see in their areas. However, we are not aware
of any mechanisms that are likely to ensure that this happens.
20. It is vital for the success of the Big
Society that safeguards are built in to ensure that particular
geographic areas or communities of interest are not disadvantaged,
particularly where this would compound existing inequalities.
For example, monitoring of and engagement with community activity
at a local authority level with a commitment to actively address
identified inequalities in their area. Civil society groups have
a useful "watchdog" role to play in this respect, as
well as in contributing to the empowerment and capacity building
of disadvantaged communities, and national and local Government
should commit to active engagement with civil society groups on
an ongoing basis in order to get the best results from the Big
21. Participants generally welcomed the principle
of making decisions and taking action at the most local level
possible, and with the greatest and most active community participation.
However, there are some issues, such as climate change and biodiversity
loss, that cannot be tackled solely at a local level or by non-state
actors acting independently. There is a need to retain a strategic
overview of, for example, the capacity of the natural environment
to adapt to climate change, and the overall greenhouse gas emissions
reductions that the country needs to achieve.
22. While local authorities and local communities
will in many cases be best placed to decide how to achieve these
aims, there is an absolute need for co-ordination at a larger-than-local
level to ensure that the wider national goal of sustainable development
within environmental limits is achieved. The aspirations of
individual communities will need to be linked in to the aspirations
of the country as a whole: we need joined-up thinking to deliver
strategic environmental priorities.
23. There was also a recognised need to work
across administrative boundaries (and possibly civil society
groups' and communities' "traditional" boundaries) in
order to address environmental issues on the physical scale at
which they exist - eg landscape, ecological network, or catchment
scales, which will require both large-scale and long-term planning
& THE PLANNING
24. The Government initiative to measure "general
wellbeing" was warmly welcomed. The sole focus on GDP
/ GVA as a measure of progress and national / local success is
a key flaw in the current system. The new indicator/s will require
careful design but the very act of acknowledging that grossed-up
income levels inadequately reflect quality of life should lead
to a greater valuing of the contribution that civil society makes
to the life of the country. It will also better enable Government
and civil society groups to engage people as citizens, not merely
as consumers: the "person as consumer" narrative has
been very disempowering, reducing people's sphere of influence
to one very small part of a multi-faceted life.
25. However, the Government's primary focus on
deficit reduction and economic growthseemingly at any costcaused
a great deal of concern. Policy, strategy and investment decisions,
and messages from Government, need to be clear that deficit reduction
and economic growth will be achieved within the context of improving
wellbeing and respecting environmental limits.
26. The planning system
is seen as a key point of engagement for people in helping to
shape their local communities, economies and environments. Government
has committed to much greater community involvement in planning,
which is welcome in principle, although we have yet to see how
it will be delivered in practice. However, there was concern that
the system and its effectiveness at protecting the environment
and genuinely enabling community participation has been weakened,
and that these reforms will continue this trend. The planning
system must give communities more and better opportunities to
genuinely shape the future of their areas, and also provide a
vehicle for identifying and delivering strategic environmental
priorities. It must be seen to be transparent, strong and democratic
if it is to be trusted.
27. Service delivery is only one aspect of the
Big Society. Civil society groups play a vital role in campaigning
for change. As the sector that often has the greatest experience
of the most intractable social and environmental problems in the
country, they have vast wealth of evidence of the issues that
require prioritisation and experience and expertise in developing
and delivering solutions.
28. There is a grave risk that increasing the
service delivery role of civil society groups will, in effect
if not intentionally, compromise their role as champions for change.
It may inhibit their ability to be critical of Government policy
and/or investment decisions and therefore silence an essential
voice in the national debate over appropriate strategic and operational
29. Government must provide guarantees and make
very clearfor example through Ministerial statements to
the Housethat contractual funding arrangements with regard
to service delivery will in no way compromise the capacity for
civil society groups to undertake campaigning activities.