Where next for the Big Society?

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Where next for the Big Society?

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The title of the Conservative Party's 2010 Election Manifesto was "Invitation to join the Government of Great Britain".   The theme was of a "Big Society" where everyone played their part in making the country better.  As the Conservative Party gathers in Birmingham this week for their final party conference before the 2015 poll it is worth reflecting on their ambition for a "Big Society".

Although derided by some, I always felt relaxed about the concept.  After all, I worked in a sector which was used to working with volunteers, businesses, statutory agencies, local and central government - indeed the 1994 Biodiversity Action Plan was established with such a partnership in mind.  Yet, promoting the "Big Society" concept at a time of deficit reduction and public spending cuts created the feeling that the State was reneging on its side of the bargain leaving civil society to pick up the pieces.  It felt that there was little consideration of how the State could support civil society in assuming responsibility for delivering various services and this is what jarred.

Yet, as a concept, I think it is still worth exploring and politicians should continue to be curious about the role the State can play in making things better and in catalysing change by others.

As I have written previously, a government should be responsible for setting ambition (for example for recovering threatened species and protecting sites), for establishing and enforcing laws that help achieve these objectives (for example protecting and managing our finest wildlife sites - SSSIs) and for creating strong institutions (such as an Office of Environmental Responsibility to mirror the Office of Budget Responsibility) to help make this happen and help report on progress. A government needs to ensure that decisions that may effect nature are based on the best available information which is why support for volunteer-led surveys like the Breeding Bird Survey is so crucial. And, it should help to ensure conservation takes place on the ground.  It doesn't need to do everything - there are others that are often better placed - but they must play their role well.

This country is not short of people prepared to do things from which the community can benefit. My father's churches were always run by an army of volunteers, my boy's rugby club would not function without an army of Dads committed every Sunday morning for eight months of the year for ten years (I am three years in to my sentence) and the RSPB could not do what is does without the million hours worth of time given for free by our dedicated volunteers.

But, if the State wants to prevent species like the hen harrier from becoming extinct, it will need to do more to help the police tackle wildlife crime; if it wants to prevent our finest wildlife sites from being destroyed through inappropriate housing developments, then it needs to step in (Lodge Hill would be a good place to start); and if it wants to see more landscape scale conservation to make space for nature then it will need to continue to provide support to help committed people develop a shared vision for an area and then find the resources to deliver that vision.

The State cannot be passive.   Politicians should obsess about how they not only prevent bad things, but also make it easy for people to do the right thing. I first heard this phrase used by John Gummer MP at a Conservative conference nearly a decade ago and I hope that there will be some, this week, that continue to obsess about how to achieve this for nature.

I shall not be  in Birmingham this week but my boss Mike Clarke will join our parliamentary team urging the party to come up with a package of proposals (such as new Nature and Wellbeing Bill and licensing driven grouse shooting) to match its ambition to be the first generation to pass on the natural environment in a better state to next.  Instead, I'm off for a day's 'volunteering' at Minsmere.  More on that tomorrow...

  • Martin, the Big Society went missing in February 2011 when 535,000 people told the Government what it thought of the proposal to sell the national forests - the Conservative Big Society was most categorically not about us having a say, but rather us taking over responsibilities Government wanted to wriggle out of. It was very much the establishment's Big Society, promoted by people who, as the subsequent years have shown, can only value things in terms of money, and in the same way value people by their income, not their worth to society (which, of course, for many true Conservatives doesn't even exist). These are people who would simply see you dad's organising the Rugby or the army of RSPB volunteers simply as mugs for doing something for nothing.

    So its up to us - and everyone who is part of the 'Big Society', especially the many thousands trying to do the best for our wildlife, know there is a great deal more to life than simply money - we have a wealth that the super-rich guarding their piles will never have, despite the Champagne and (almost fished out) Lobster. But I do think, as happened over the forests, we need in the present environment to rethink how we go about getting our views across - for starters, we don't need an office of environmental responsibility - we need our Department of the Environment back, looking after the total environment first and foremost, rather than as a side issue to killing Badgers for a tiny minority of farmers. And we should be judging our institutions - Government, NGOs etc - by results not policies or rhetoric - actually saving the birds, including the poor, poor Hen Harriers.And, of course, Bob.