What can environmental groups add to the Big Society?

Party conferences are a great way to get the political pulse of an idea. If the fringe guides were anything to go by then the Big Society looks like it is already here; actively running areas from education to health.

At Green Alliance’s fringes at the recent party conferences we were talking with DECC’s senior politicians, business and third sector leaders about the merits of the Big Society mantra for the environmental agenda, and conversely about what the environment movement could offer back. (Environment by the way has had no mention in official Big Society documentation- see our previous blog post on this).

Whilst the politicians were keen to talk about the potential Big Society-ness of their planned policies, such as the Green Deal, Tony Hawkhead of Groundwork convincingly argued that the physical environment we live in is a great way to engage people with their place in society. In fact we can already see the Big Society in action amongst many communities with environment at its helm.

Take the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers who take a hands-on approach to environmentalism, providing the opportunity and skills for volunteers to engage positively and sustainably in their natural environment.  This can take a variety of forms from helping to repair a local dry stone wall to taking part in a community garden. These activities tick off a number of Big Society objectives; they get people together improving community cohesion; they get people outside and moving, improving health; they work with young people giving them skills and purpose and they perform a vital public function.

Groundwork themselves show how environmental and social agendas can be combined seamlessly to address social exclusion, poverty and environmental issues in tandem, and more importantly how those on the margin can play a positive role in shaping the destiny of their communities.

This was echoed in a really interesting day I went to recently run by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation which showcased some of the projects they have recently funded. These all brilliantly linked the environment with advancing other agendas. Top of the list was a garden run by Homeless Link at the Chelsea flower show. This garden, put together by over 500 homeless people, and designed by award winning designer Paul Stone, helped develop planting, gardening, design, construction and planning skills for those involved. Volunteers are now empowered to move onto further training and qualifications and turn their lives around long-term.

So, perhaps as well as asking what the Big Society agenda can deliver for the environment, we should be show-casing what our agenda can deliver for the Big Society.

We will be tackling this question and more at a pre-Christmas conference on the Big, Green Society, contact Faye Scott for more information (fscott@green-alliance.org.uk).

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