The Big Society already exists here

ELEVEN million people live in 1,600 small towns across the country; communities that are now being recognised as seedbeds for new ideas.

The new Small Towns Policy Forum aims to expand community-led planning - to give local people even more control over decisions affecting their towns.

The forum, established to devise and promote new ideas for the future vitality and viability of towns just like the ones across the Midweek Herald’s distribution area, was launched at The British Academy last week.

Ray Pahl, Professor Emeritus at the University of Kent, who is chairman of the new forum, said: “The notion of the Big Society encompasses many exciting and innovative ideas, but many of our towns have been seedbeds for some of these new ideas over the past decade.

“In towns throughout the country, the commitment and experience of volunteers, businesses and community organisations already helps to shape local life for the better. Working together, they have developed a type of community-led planning which helps people to have more control of decisions affecting their towns.

“We need to develop and extend this community-led planning. But let’s not re-invent the wheel - learning from experience comes cheap and if the Government harnesses this practical and research expertise it can be a cost-effective way of turning Big Society ideas into practice.”

Councillor Whitlock, deputy mayor of Honiton, said: “In towns such as Honiton, we have always had a form of Big Society, with a committed band of volunteer citizens dedicated to providing a wide variety of activities and services for all ages.

Most Read

“Without our many youth groups, support groups, fund-raising groups and many more, our towns would be poorer places.

“The reality of today is that cuts to public services will mean that we will have to get more involved if we want to retain services we all value.”

Councillor Whitlock cites East Devon District Council’s decision to stop funding flower beds and Tourist Information Centres as among the cuts to have already taken place locally.

But he warned: “There are now suggested cuts to other services, such as public toilets and street cleaning.

“The district council is keen for town councils to take on these services. Whilst there is some scope for this, without a further increase in the council tax there is a limit to what we can do.”

Councillor Whitlock added: “The reality of the Big Society is that, if we want to retain many of the services, then we, the people of our town, will need to get more involved - and our bands of committed volunteers will need to increase.

“We already have the evidence of how successful this can be in the work to regenerate The Glen, the setting up of a memory cafe and the way local groups and schools have agreed to take over flower beds.

“I am sure that, over the coming months, there will be more calls for citizens to ‘get involved’, and I am also sure that we can rise to the challenge.”

In Axminster, shopkeepers have risen to the challenge by saving this year’s display of hanging baskets. In Seaton, a voluntary committee is making great strides to increase useage of the town hall.

And across Devon, those with life-threatening illnesses are getting the care and support they need thanks to Hospiscare fundraisers. Just a few examples.