An interesting blog post from John Popham at Our Society on the (ongoing) perception that most major policy decisions in the UK (mostly England following devolution) are taken in London with limited reference to the rest of the country.
Popham explains that: “Our Society grew out of an earlier network called ‘Big Society in the North’ which was formed partly because of a feeling that thinking on the Big Society was being driven by London-based individuals and organisations who did not fully realise the impact of their actions and pronouncements on communities in northern England.”
He acknowledges that: “if truth be told, it’s probably felt in Hackney, Deptford, Harlesden, Brixton and Shoreditch too.” but follows this up with: “It has to be said that the perception which provided our initial impetus has not gone away. So, the Prime Minister “re-launches” Big Society in Somerset House, and then visits the People’s Supermarket, which is a great initiative, but is a world away from the every day lives of the people I spent part of yesterday with on a social housing estate in Gateshead. Decisions are being made behind closed doors in London.”
Temporarily, leaving aside the question of government decision-making, the London focus of nominally national organisations is a recurring theme in the Third Sector/Civil Society. I’m a trustee/director of two national organisations, one of which is based in Newcastle and successfully rotates meeting venues around the country, the other of which has tried that approach but failed to get quorate meetings outside London so has resorted to holding all board meetings in the capital (although some staff are based outside London).
I don’t think either organisation is fundamentally more or less nationally focused based on where it has its meetings but perceptions are important and – as an individual board member – I think I do have a slightly more rounded view of life in the UK as a result of visited different parts of it.
Overall, though, while geographical distance from the knock-on effects of decision-making is important, it’s not the most important issue. In the case of the decisions ‘being made behind closed doors in London’ the operative phrase is really ‘behind closed doors’. A person living half a mile from the closed door has just as little influence as someone three hundred miles away if they can’t get in and they perceive that their views aren’t being heard. In terms of the Big Society project, it seems that perception is currently as true for many people living within the M25 as those living beyond it.
There definitely is a need for government and civil society/third sector organisations to be clear that they understand that the UK is a big place of which London is only one part but clearly the current problems of perception for The Big Society agenda extend far beyond that.