For a Big Society we need small worlds

I’ve been a long time admirer of Sue Clifford and the work of Common Ground. I’m very pleased she is to speak at this week’s Museums Sustainability and Growth conference in Norwich which MEAL has helped organise.

Since the late 1980s Common Ground has championed the notion of local distinctiveness, encouraging people to celebrate the peculiar and curious within their local landscape and community. Whether it has been through the exercise of producing parish maps with artists or through events such as Apple Day and Tree Dressing, they have helped communities tease out the unique and diverse amongst that which is perceived as ordinary.

In some small part the influence of Common Ground has gone mainstream. Town planners frequently refer to a ‘sense of place’ and ‘place shaping’. In places like Fakenham in North Norfolk artists have worked alongside planners to literally embed local heritage in the streetscape (Fakenham was a centre for printing and diverse typefaces have been carved into pavements and streets). But really places like Fakenham are the exception. In the past 15 years most of the country’s townscapes have become homogenous; the same shops permeate the high street, homes are designed as atomised ‘units’ rather than as jigsaw pieces to create whole places to live. By and large economic growth ignored the idiosyncrasies of landscape and communities. All too frequently Planning Gain agreements with developers were used by unimaginative local councils to improve public infrastructure rather than invest in community facilities such as libraries, museums and theatres.

In these straightened times there is a danger that the bland may expand beyond the realm of town centre or housing developments. Local governemnt caught between a desire to see non-essential services retained but unable to afford to provide them in-house will suely look to privae suppliers. Large companies working within economies of scale and better placed to run things cheaply would eagerly pitch for long term contracts. An emasculated public sector would find it difficult to hold them to account. It was not with tongue in cheek that a senior officer at Suffolk County Council suggested to me that perhaps, “Costa Coffee could run our Library Service”

The present government seems caught in two minds. By instinct it wants to be frugal with public money and the easiest thing to do would be to throw some public services to the private sector and let the market determine if they are vital. However they are also attracted to the notion of the Big Society, where social enterprises and communities forge partnerships to provide services shaped by the desires of people within a locality. As Bridget McKenzie notes the Big Society has laudable aims encouraging self reliance, resilience and agency. Indeed Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary speaking at this week’s Local Government Association Conference noted that, “Neighbourhoods will be key to service delivery under this government”.

The Big Society sounds like a noble cause but it won’t magically emerge by laying off public sector  workers and expecting volunteers to run care homes. Pickles is correct in thinking that local ties must be strengthened but bridging social capital takes time. It can’t be directed from above and it won’t result in the provision of even or standardised services. It will also require some form of community chest to be available for investing in capital assets. More importantly it relies on precisely those qualities espoused by Common Ground, an understanding that small is beautiful, that peculiarity and muddle are part of the warp and weft of life. In an interview with the Ecologist a few years back Clifford noted that people should… “define for themselves what’s special about a place, and what matters about it. That’s the key. Government agencies and large bodies can’t stand this. They want to define things; they want to keep tabs…  only ordinary people can make ordinary places matter.”

The Big Society won’t  be solely realised by cooking up innovative financial and governance models, nor by providing services on the cheap but by people trusting and being accountable to each other in the places they cherish.

This entry was posted in economy, landscape, Social Capital, Trust. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to For a Big Society we need small worlds

  1. Jack Kirby says:

    I too am a fan of Common Ground’s work, ever since I visited ‘From place to PLACE: an Exhibition of People’s Parish Maps’ at the Barbican in London in 1996.

    Sue Clifford gave a paper about Common Ground’s key belief, local distinctiveness, and the role that museums can play in promoting it, at the Social History Curators Group conference in Manchester in 2002. The paper was published in Social History in Museums 28, downloadable from the SHCG website( and still worth a read.

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