Every year I am inspired by the Great North Run. For nearly an hour a torrent of people pass the end of our street on their way from Newcastle to the sea, all on a personal quest and most raising money for good causes, including Children North East! I am sure David Cameron would approve of this mobilisation of ordinary people willing to help others through sponsorship, perhaps he would call it the 'Big-Hearted Society'?
One of the runners was Alastair Campbell, former communications adviser to Tony Blair. I was delighted to be invited by the Board of VONNE (Voluntary Organisations Network North East) to meet him over dinner that evening. It was a great evening, Alastair is a very entertaining guest.
The subject of the evening was the 'Big Society'. Clearly it is David Cameron's 'big idea' and it is obvious he is not going to give up on it. Trouble is no one really knows quite what it means. All we have are these pronoucements:
An army of 5,000 professionally trained 'community organisers'.
A Big Society bank funded from dormant bank accounts to provide money to community groups.
Neighbourhood grants for the poorest areas to help people set up local groups and social enterprises.
Allowing civil servants to do voluntary community work.
Having a national 'Big Society Day' to celebrate local community action.
New funding for social entrepreneurs to get more social enterprises going.
But when it comes to what the Big Society will actually do it seems to boil down to pubs run by community groups; volunteers staffing libraries; and kind hearted souls taking in their neighbour's abused children.
Ministers have quickly jumped onto the bandwagon so that the Big Society can mean almost anything they want it to mean. And this was Alastair Campbell's main point - don't wait to be told, the voluntary and community sector should grasp the opportunity and define what the Big Society actually means. And of course it is voluntary organisations and community groups who are the heart of a 'Big Society'. We are already here on the ground working for the benefit of local communities, engaging people in voluntary work and (in many cases) supplementing public services.