Like many members of the Tory tribe, I’ve struggled with the Big Society doctrine. As with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity there have been moments when I thought I’d grasped it, but upon being asked to explain it to somebody else, found that it had given me the slip again. After an impassioned Cameron interview I’ve been enthused — but then, challenged to justify my enthusiasm to a sceptic, faltered.
Unlike the doctrine of the Trinity, the Big Society philosophy is not arcane. It’s a homely pudding made of voluntarism, local knowledge, local democracy, self-help, civicmindedness, community spirit — and a dash of strawberry jam (homemade) thrown in. But there’s a theme to this pudding: that we take responsibility for ourselves and for the people around us and the places where we live. It’s what I was brought up to believe.
No, my difficulty is not with the idea, but the extent of its possible application in a 21st-century, hi-tech, IT-savvy and super-mobile modern society in which the moment you try to organise anything involving other people you run into problems with health and safety, child protection, nationwide standards, insurance and employers’ liability. Obviously there’s a bit of scope for people to do a bit more for each other, and rely a bit less on the state — but how much more, and could this really make a serious dent on all the big, expensive things the central state or local county council does, like health, education, social services and the care of the elderly?
Rant over. Because, little by little, and like a virus, the Big Society idea has lodged itself insidiously in my mind; so that now, everywhere I go, I start to see small — mark that word ‘small’ — examples of things that actually could be done closer to the ground, by and for the people who know about them and need them. And these small examples, most of them trivial in themselves, are beginning to add up to something that, incrementally, could make a big difference. There are so many, once you start looking.
Here’s one. On a short walk between Cressbrook Mill and Monsal Head in the Derbyshire Peak District National Park last Sunday we passed — and read — a new sign. The path, which is also the Monsal Trail and a cycle track, follows the route of the old Bakewell to Buxton railway line (so excoriated by John Ruskin), now closed. After the crossing of the magnificent Monsal Dale viaduct the scenery is spectacular; but arduous detours have to be taken around four railway tunnels. The Headstone, Litton, Cressbrook and Chee Tor Tunnels, all about a quarter of a mile long, have been bricked up but (I’m told) are internally in good repair. But rubble has been dumped inside some of the entrances.
The sign, placed there by the National Park Authority, informed us that work is underway to reopen the tunnels for cyclists. This is a brilliant idea because bikes, like trains, don’t like the steep inclines which tunnels avoid; and the tunnels allow a good width for biking groups, families and friends to pass.
But in one respect this information dismayed me. The estimated cost of this work, it said, was £2.6 million.
I don’t question the estimate. The Peak District National Park are not spendthrifts. Though managing the project, they are receiving substantial help from Cycling England, a body itself temporarily funded by the Department of Transport, though I understand that future state funding is not assured. Looking at its website, Cycling England appears to be an excellent and much needed institution.
And at this point that little Big Society virus in my brain begins to wriggle. Two ideas. First, couldn’t cyclists themselves be more involved in the funding of Cycling England — some £160 million per annum? Cyclists have a strong sense of community and are good at organising (as I know to my cost, having once upset them). I would hazard a guess that as an overall group they do not represent a particularly disadvantaged section of society. They pay no road tax. Cyclists do already support a range of cycling organisations, local and national, out of their own pockets: why not this one, if they want it to continue? Cyclists themselves would be the best judges of whether it represents good value.
But, second, this: at an ancient and historic copper mine I visited in neighbouring Cheshire two years ago, a group of volunteer enthusiasts have been clearing away rubble for many years, all unpaid and all in their spare time. Most cyclists are by definition fit, strong and healthy. Campaigning by cycling groups will have been part of the genesis of this Monsal Trail project. Why not involve campaigners in the work itself? Shifting rubble is not highly skilled; it would be fun to be involved. Walking and horse-riding groups, to all of whose members these tunnels are planned to open, could join in.
I pose such thoughts as questions. What objections might be raised? A number, perfectly reasonably. It would be objected that other groups get state funding, so why shouldn’t cyclists, especially as cycling is good for the nation’s health and carbon footprint. But my Big Society virus whispers that as more and more groups and interests do begin to fund and organise themselves, the ‘why just us?’ objection will fall away.
Second, how to collect the money? Here, government can help co-ordinate: if cyclists were to consolidate their organisations into a sort of AA of cycling, a range of benefits — like using this trail, or public cycle-racks, or railway provision for cycles, or discounts in cycle shops, could be made dependent on showing the badge.
Third — as regards voluntary rubble-clearing — what about insurance, health and safety, organisers’ liability? Here again, government can help. It should be easier for voluntary groups to set about public tasks — changes to the law may be needed. Some years ago our nearest village’s village-owned water supply company almost folded because so small a supplier found it almost impossible to get a reasonable quote for an insurance premium. The inbuilt regulatory bias against small groups and amateurs must change.
Perhaps there are fatal objections to my proposals for the Monsal Trail. But perhaps, too, you get some inkling of the possibilities that, when we start thinking about things in a different way, open up. Horizons broaden. Shift the burden of the question from ‘Why should we…?’ to ‘Why shouldn’t we…?’ Try it for a month, and see what I mean.
Matthew Parris is a columnist on the Times.