The `Big Society` formed the central theme when Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government gave the keynote speech to delegates at the annual stakeholder conference of the local strategic partnership One Epping Forest.
Mr Pickles set the scene at the event, hosted by Epping Forest College in Loughton. He used the opportunity to give delegates from local voluntary groups a flavour of his thinking on the future provision of services. When the `Localism` bill currently going through Parliament becomes law, Mr Pickles envisages a right for local people and community groups to buy and run buildings nominated on a register of community facilities. Any redundant building could be on the list such as old school buildings, pubs or even churches.
Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP and Councillor Di Collins, Chairman of One Epping Forest
To help local groups fund projects, Mr Pickles hinted that he will soon be making a major announcement on the `Big Society Bank` making use of the cash in dormant bank accounts. He also suggested the banks themselves might contribute in some way.
Drawing on his experience of Bradford where levels of deprivation were obvious to see, making bids for funding more straightforward, Mr Pickles recognised the problem of areas such as Epping Forest District where great affluence can mask pockets of deprivation.
Volunteering is at the heart of Mr Pickles’ attempts to improve local communities. He said: Part of my job is to remove some of the sillier, petty restrictions that can sap the energy of volunteers.” With tongue in cheek he said: It is harder to close a street for a party than to invade a small third world country. You don`t need a full traffic management plan to close a side street for a party to celebrate the Royal Wedding.
Responding to questions, Mr Pickles acknowledged a degree of cynicism from some people. Asked if the `Big Society` was `Society on the cheap `, he suggested ways in which the organisers of the Loughton Festival and other groups could get help with funding and insurance and emphasised his desire to do away with red tape. He said: This is about people like you getting on with things that are important to you without getting bogged down in regulation.
Mr Pickles also felt there was a role for business in the `Big Society`. He said he wanted business to identify barriers so he could help to remove them. No business exists by itself, they are all part of the wider community.
Challenged on the `unsettling` effect of the `Big Society` and what it might look like in three or four years, Mr Pickles said it would look like people with imagination who could thrive.
In response to a question about the future for town and parish councils, Mr Pickles envisaged more planning powers at a local level in much the same way as councils in Germany and France operate.
Finally, Mr Pickles offered his personal thanks to all the volunteers and delegates. He said: Our communities would not be what they are without your help. You make our communities better for what you do and I would like to thank you.
John Houston of One Epping Forest listed some of the key priorities of the partnership and what may take precedence in the future. Delegates then listened to a series of presentations from the chairmen of the various theme groups of the local strategic partnership, expanding on Mr Houston`s comments.
Councillor Anne Grigg spoke about some of the planning issues facing the District. The Metropolitan Green Belt area of Epping Forest District Council is the fifth largest in England. The need to protect the green and open character of the District needs to be balanced with the requirements to accommodate many people on the housing waiting lists and tackle the congestion caused by living so close to London.
Dr Pam Hall of the Healthier Communities theme group reminded delegates of the ageing nature of the population and the need to adapt services to their changing need.
Superintendent Simon Williams spoke on behalf of the Safer Communities Partnership. While Epping Forest District has one of the lowest levels of crime in comparison to other areas, fear of crime is amongst the highest. He outlined plans for the future around promoting respect as a starting point for everyone, people playing a more active role in their communities and creating better links between partner organisations.
Julie Chandler of Epping Forest District Council spoke about the Children`s Partnership, including protection of the most vulnerable children and the increasing problem of child obesity. She described how positive and innovative projects taking place in the District were making a difference, such as the trampolining programmes to help children develop confidence and improve attainment levels at school.
Jacqui Foile of Voluntary Action Epping Forest placed the importance of the voluntary sector into context. In a snapshot of the District she said that approximately 34,000 local people benefited directly from the work of volunteers. Sixty per cent of the groups providing voluntary services have no paid staff at all and she estimated 2,300 volunteers made contributions to the life of the community each week.
After a short break, delegates reconvened into a number of workshops following which each group fed back to the conference and a panel of local experts moderated by the Acting Chief Executive of Epping Forest District Council Derek Macnab. Among the chief concerns coming back from the floor of the conference was the economy and the need to support local business whether through low car park charges, tourism, changes to the law on Business Rates or promoting the small shops and businesses that help to give the district its unique character.
Bringing the day to a close, people with learning difficulties of the Arability Project Choir, which has received funding through One Epping Forest, gave a wonderful musical performance. Including a solo by Ricky Conrad, the group received a standing ovation and reminded everyone why they were all there.