Back in 2010, when David Cameron was touring the nation and visiting schools and hospitals in his bid to be our prime minister, he unveiled a new concept called 'the Big Society'. Simply put, this flagship initiative applauded volunteering and community solidarity and appealed to the good will of the nation to get us to help each other.
Some critics saw it as an attempt to enlist additional free labour while reducing public spending and the size of government. Optimists gave it a cautious welcome, seeing it as a tool that might help gel a fragmenting nation together. So how is the 'Big Society' four years later?
For the past couple of weeks royalty and all manner of politicians have had their wellies on, trudging through the mud and flood waters of the Somerset Levels and the Thames Valley with photographers and television crews in tow. The prime minister has pledged "unlimited" public funds to help families rebuild. But what about the rest of us? What help could 'civil society' and its ordinary citizens offer?
At Islamic Relief our main focus is alleviating poverty and suffering in developing countries, but we also have a tradition of offering practical assistance to those affected by extremes of weather in developed nations, thanks to the tremendous support we get from enthusiastic young volunteers. Islamic Relief volunteers in the United States helped with the clear-up after tornadoes ravaged the US last year, while our volunteers in Australia have recently provided sleeping bags and mattresses to people evacuated from their homes because of bush fires.
In recent weeks our volunteers here in the UK have filled my inbox with messages, offering assistance and asking what they could do to help people affected by the floods .
Not long after the extent and severity of the floods became clear, we put volunteer teams on standby at various wholesale warehouses, with vans and trucks at the ready. I drove to a church that was doubling up as a respite centre for families in Sedgemoor, to find out what kind of help people needed most and see if we could assist.
On arrival I spoke to local clergy and local council officials. They all welcomed my visit, but said that the families affected were looking after themselves in most cases. Only a handful had used the centre. There wasn't really a pressing need, as far as these local community leaders were concerned, for vans full of supplies and volunteers to drive to Somerset. Heavy machinery and the dredging of rivers were certainly priorities but there there wasn't really a pressing need, as far as these local community leaders were concerned, for vans full of supplies and volunteers to drive to Somerset.
I checked in at a few more official-looking places, where people wearing hi-vis jackets gave the same message: "Thanks for coming, but what we really need is cattle trucks and water pumps."
A week later, however, the appetite to help from our Islamic Relief volunteers and others in the wider community had only intensified. Sikhs from gurdwaras in Walsall, Muslims from mosques in East London and all kinds of local people were trying to find ways to offer assistance - in effect to make the 'Big Society' a practical reality. One of our volunteer teams drove to Worcester, to another church, to see what help we could offer. Again the answer was the familiar appreciation for the thought, followed by a polite shake of the head.
On Saturday our volunteers were driving back from Worcester feeling a bit deflated, and the 'Big Society' idea felt like a bit of a damp squib. While we can be grateful that we live in a country where the state can mostly respond effectively to environmental disasters, and local communities are remarkably resourceful and resilient, I can't help wondering whether some real needs are being missed. And wondering whether we are missing a trick as a country if we can't find a way to capitalise on the huge appetite for voluntary action that there is at times like this.
Did we ask the wrong people in the right places? Is the 'Big Society' functioning perfectly well without our help on this occasion? Or is there a simple task in the relief effort or the clear-up that would benefit hugely from an extra injection of voluntary effort?
I'll try once more through this blog to invoke the spirit of the 'Big Society' as I understand it. If you've been affected by the floods, and would welcome some kind of material aid from Islamic Relief, or the help of volunteers to clear up your home or farm, please call our Islamic Relief hotline on 0207 593 3232.