Why 'Local Society' is the Key to Britain Beating the Recession

16/12/2012 11:02 GMT | Updated 13/02/2013 10:12 GMT

As we look back on an event-packed 2012, and realise that the full effect of the Government cuts has yet to be felt, there is a greater need than ever to strengthen and empower local communities across the country. We need to join together to create warmth and humanity in what could be a bleak 2013.

This isn't an easy task: 97% of communities are more fragmented than they were 40 years ago. The average life expectancy of the richest 10% in the UK is 14 years longer than the poorest 10%, and they have 100 times the wealth. Levels of inequality are the highest they have been since the 1930s. 250,000 people are already using food banks and levels of homelessness are rising.

Our level of social trust has halved since the 1950s. Six out of 10 of us take no part in civic life and just one quarter of adults volunteer regularly. Some five million people regularly experience intense loneliness and more than half the people over the age of 75 live alone.

When I agreed to be the CEO of the Big Society Network in 2010, I became involved on the basis that it would be an independent, challenging partner to government that would help citizens take practical action.

It became clear that Big Society suffered from a number of intractable problems. In order to achieve a "Big Society", or Labour's "Good Society", we need to start with the concept of "Local Society": encouraging and enabling people to make change in their neighbourhood. That is why I left the Big Society Network to set up Your Square Mile.

An alliance of the public and voluntary sectors, combined with the power of business, needs to come together in 2013 through organisations such as ourselves to give citizens a helping hand in the form of practical advice, resources and incentives. Many people need to start with basic steps, and an uplifting experience of community rather than a disappointing attempt to be worthy.

We have to dispel the idea that you have to be a "community" type of person or be from a confident, educated background, or have loads of time, to get things changed in your neighbourhood. Society can be changed by the aggregation of individual, local actions that encourage an exciting sense of collective, local identity and will-power.

What I witnessed in the early years of The Big Lunch, which I co-founded with Tim Smit in 2009, was that even the most deprived and fearful communities started to gain more self-belief by rganizing a successful event. The challenge was how to extend that self-belief and common purpose beyond just one event.

Most people don't know the basics of how their area works; how to pull the levers of change. Many people are simply unaware of local assets. Many community organisations are fragile and expend huge amounts of their energy simply staying alive.

When a community is lucky enough to attract financial support, it's often without consulting residents about their needs and issues - something that Your Square Mile is trying to redress.

So how do we make this happen? We need the rebirth of public meetings and discussions. We need reliable sources of finance for community projects. Citizens should be encouraged to create their own community banks and lending schemes to avoid falling into the hands of vicious loan sharks. Grand Central Savings in Glasgow is a shining example of this.

We need to be inventive to tackle poverty or scant resources. For example, £3 per resident in an estate of 5,000 people could raise £15,000 to kit out a boxing club or a new playground to keep kids fitter, happier and off the streets. Initiatives like this could really extend the legacy of the Olympics by providing more access to sport for all.

Time is a currency in the workplace and it should be in volunteering. A group called Spice has pioneered a scheme where an hour of volunteering wins you a one-hour "bank-note" that you can then redeem against benefits such as free or discounted leisure facilities, sports events, concerts and adult education classes.

We need to support the work of food banks such as the Trussell Trust, but also extend it by finding local people across the country who are adept at preparing cheap but nutritious food and recruit them to teach others in free, public cookery classes. The price of food is predicted to increase by 10% over the coming months; becoming a critical challenge for many communities.

We need neighbours to stop ignoring each other, and by neighbours I include all kinds of institutions and businesses such as universities, theatres, art galleries, scientific institutes, orchestras, and even gyms. We need art galleries to not sit behind their Victorian walls but take copies of their paintings out on to the streets.

I want to persuade the likes of the Halle Orchestra in Manchester to teach people to play musical instruments, in the style of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Venezuela. We need more Gareth Malones forming choirs to bring people together; more Shakespeare for Schools troupes or Chicken Shed Theatre companies.

We need businesses to systematically pour their resources into neighbourhoods where they are a significant employer - just as Heineken is doing with Your Square Mile, to transform employee volunteering and motivation as well as improve society as a whole.

We need to join up the dots of initiatives such as Business Connectors and Community Organisers, Community First and Big Local, as we are currently doing, so local leaders can understand the common ingredients available to help them.

All citizens and political parties must unite around empowering local communities. In the words of the American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."