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Big society minister hears his policy drubbed in Suffolk

Nick Hurd, the Civil Society minister, was on the receiving end yesterday when his “big Society” policies were given a serious drubbing at a conference of Suffolk voluntary groups yesterday.

He had come to the county which has been face-to-face with those ideas and rejected them. Even Craig Dearden-Phillps, who bills himself as “one of the UK’s best-know social entrepreneurs” and is a Suffolk councillor admitted to a doubt this week.

The extent of the attacks Mr Hurd faced on the “meaningless” policy which reflected the “life experiences of an elite class” is made abundantly clear in a report in today’s Evening Star.

After the meeting in Bury St Edmunds, Mr Hurd told the Star, it had been “pretty tough” and, rather lamely, “For me it was genuinely interesting to have the debate.”

And he said: “We’ve got a window of opportunity now to drive this culture change forward.”

What that means, other than that Mr Herd excels in stringing together meaningless cliches, I have no idea.

The paper quotes one speaker as saying:

Some might say that Suffolk launched itself as a flagship for your Government’s policies and principles in new ways of working, but now that battle is joined it has itself become a burning platform, masts and sails shot to pieces, holed by cannon-fire, rudderless and ripe for Captain Jack Sparrow to board and take over.

Would you encourage us, the crew, to mutiny? To gird our loins? Or abandon ship?

There are more robust comments in the newspaper’s report.

In Suffolk people have been thinking very hard about localism, community participation, and big society. It was being forced upon them by the county council’s “enabling” policy (aka the New Strategic Direction) which would have resulted in giving up direct running of almost all services.

Under intense pressure from the people of the county, that policy is now being rowed back under a new leader, although quite how far is still unclear.

Travel for young people, school crossing patrols and libraries have been among the most contentious issues. Even people who were in favour of communities taking over the running of services in principle, expressed severe doubts about whether it was possible, particularly in a time of financial stringency.

Craig Dearden-Phillips, a proponent of a big society and a Lib Dem Suffolk county councillor, has recognised limits to community management this week.

At the weekend a horse bolted and one person was killed and eight others seriously injured at the Nowton Park County Fair, organised by St Edmundsbury Borough Council.

He writes on his blog:

I felt glad the state was there to deal with this. Yes, it is up to the council to deal properly with the aftermath, to oversee the inquiry and, possibly, to pay out compensation. Imagine if this park had been handed over to a half-ready community group with no real experience in event management.

I have been one of the people hammering away for this park to be given to the community to operate as a charity or social enterprise. I am now not so sure that this was the right idea. In truth, we’re not ready.

Whether Mr Hurd’s visit to Suffolk will have done anything to encourage the Government to reconsider its policy, I doubt.

The political calculation is going to be whether a U-tun by David Cameron or serious failures by outsourced community projects (inevitable and surely marked in red on the Government’s risk assessment) would do more damage to the prime minister’s credibility.

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