John Bale's blog: Let's not write off the Big Society yet
What, if anything, might the Big Society mean for the construction industry? To the public as a whole (according to opinion polls) it seems to mean either a fig-leaf to cover public spending cuts, or something they simply don’t understand.
To me, the BS brand is in danger of being over-sold, but the essential message makes sense: that social needs are outstripping any realistically foreseeable level of public funding, and that those needs will only be met if public spending is augmented by the widespread mobilisation of social action, especially at the local level. You’re free, of course, to detect political bias in that, and to disagree. So let’s get back to its possible relevance to construction.
First, to state the obvious, construction is the most local and ubiquitous of industries – it happens where it is needed, in every community, on every street. It provides and maintains the built environment: a set of assets (private and public) which are fundamental to human well-being. The replacement and augmentation of those assets proceeds slowly (especially at times of economic stringency) so that new construction in any year is a small fraction of the total stock. But the quality of the stock – for example, the condition of roads and public parks, of houses and leisure centres, and their suitability to current needs – can be influenced by local action or inaction. And in my experience those who work in the built environment professions are keenly aware of the relevance of their skills to the quality of life.
In my local community, there have been several examples of local action creating improvements that wouldn’t have occurred without that local action. Construction and built environment professionals have been involved, wearing many different hats: civic activists, with no axe to grind, save the wish to improve a part of their locality that has troubled them for years; local councillors, who have imported their professional skills into their roles as community leaders; salaried local authority officers, meeting members of their own professional bodies in a high street site meeting, rather than a CPD event; and employees of the firms that have been commissioned to design or execute the work. What makes such projects part of the ‘big society’, I would suggest, is that the instigation has come from members of the community, and there is a value-adding partnership between citizens and providers.
My local high street has been improved, at the instigation of a community group, with construction professionals involved in all the participant organisations throughout the six and a half years from the germ of an idea to completion. The result: a better town centre and £1m into construction industry output, augmented by an uncounted number of unpaid voluntary hours. A few miles away, the disused chapel of what was once a huge mental hospital (an ‘asylum”) has been restored as a memorial to the countless number of patients whose bodies had been buried nearby in unmarked graves.
That initiative was led by passionate fund-raising campaigners, and carried into effect by volunteers, including construction craft students from Leeds College of Building.
Neither of those projects would have happened without inspired local leadership, persistent fund-raising, and voluntary effort in all sorts of roles. And, I would suggest, for every such project that has been completed throughout the UK, there are many others crying out to be achieved. As social needs multiply, so does the number of potential projects; and it’s increasingly clear that many needs will not be met without Big Society initiatives.
Construction professionals are widely involved, but there is scope for much more involvement – and for construction firms to develop the sort of understanding of social activism (the ‘third sector’) that they already have of their private and public sector clients.
There are market opportunities here and, more importantly, opportunities to demonstrate how good construction can add value to people’s lives.
John Bale, PPCIOB and emeritus professor at Leeds Metropolitan University, is posting regular blogs at: www.ckegroup.org/johnbaleblog