Know the limitations of Big Society ethos

When the Department of Communities & Local Government director of communities and neighbourhoods Neil O'Connor told a gathering of green space professionals last week that parks are at the heart of the government's Big Society agenda, he was, no doubt, hoping to make his audience - many of whom are poised to face the toughest budget cuts of their working lives - feel a bit better about the future.

Of course there is every reason why parks should be at the vanguard of a policy that promotes community involvement, since, as O'Connor rightly noted, when it comes to getting local residents active and involved, the green space sector is already way ahead of the game. If an exemplar is needed, green space professionals would be willing to line up to share their experiences with other service managers.

Said O'Connor: "There are thousands of places where people have come together to create and manage quality green spaces - sharing skills, knowledge and expertise. If Big Society can't come through in this sector, where can it? This is the place where there's real evidence of people coming together to do great things."

The trouble with so many of these statements from both politicians and civil servants is that they fail to acknowledge the thousands of green space professionals who enable those thousands of local residents and volunteers to come together and do "great things". Without professional input, effective, productive community work simply wouldn't exist.

Or as Dave Morris, vice chairman of the friends groups' umbrella body, the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, put it this week: "You can't systematically and continuously manage vital public services on a voluntary basis. It's absolute nonsense." (See p15). Yes there will be many friends groups who want to get more involved. But as Paul Bramhill, chief executive of parks charity GreenSpace points out there is a big difference between offering to help out at an event and taking on the responsibility of management. The last thing volunteers want is to be treated as cut-price versions of professional green space staff.

Kate Lowe, editor. Email: kate.lowe@haymarket.com


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