Friday, 1 April 2011

It's Not Big And It's Not Clever

Eugenie Matthias (aka Redjen) was really quite famous when I was young.  She was the lead singer in The Belle Stars - probably best known now for their cover version of Iko Iko ("My Grandma and your Grandma, sitting by the fire..."), but who also wrote a truly wonderful song called Sign Of The Times (more of that later).  But Jen (because that's how I know her) went on to do something even more wonderful than adding to the Popmusic canon.  Jen became a Community Champion.

She grew up in care and she understood that young people who grow up without a family unit have special problems and needs that the rest of us probably can't understand.  So in the late 90s she teamed up with her friend, Adrian Sherwood (legendary record producer, who also grew up in care) to try to do something to help kids who were going through the same experiences that they went through.  They did it by concentrating on the world they knew - they decided to help kids express their feelings, their anger, their sadness, their hopes for the future, through music and performance.  It was a small project, but it made a big impact on the lives of a lot of young people in London.

At around this time I was working on a Government funded project called The Community Champions Fund. It's aim was to recognise the work that people were doing in their local communities and to give them financial support to get the skills to expand their projects and keep them going.  It was only worth £3 million a year, but we focussed on using our experience to give people in the voluntary sector an idea of where they could go to access bigger pots of money and how to get their hands on it.  We also ran an awards ceremony every year, recognising the contribution that really outstanding individuals had made to their communities.

Jen was one of the award winners in 2002.  I remember her stood next to the then Minister for Young People, Ivan Lewis, all flame red hair and attitude, speaking passionately about how she really cared about what she was doing and how she didn't see how she could continue doing it without the support that the Government was giving her.  

There were other winners that stand out in my head, too:  Adam Short, who tirelessly worked to make sure that disenfranchised kids had access to people of influence, so that the decisions made in their local area reflected what they needed; The Henstridge Village Design Group, who basically said to their local council that they demanded to have a say in planning decisions that affected them and then made damn sure that they showed that they could have a constructive input; The Westhoughton Youth Project, who were a group of very young teenagers who decided that, instead of bemoaning the fact that there was nothing in their area for young people to do, they would get up off their arses and create things.

Now, it seems to me that all of these projects are precisely what David Cameron's Big Society is all about.  Here we have local people identifying a gap in statutory provision and filling it.  Not because it was going to offer them any monetary gain, but because they knew it would improve their lives, their neighbour's lives, their neighbour's neighbour's lives, and so on.

Here's the irony.  The ConDemmed government have cut off funding for projects like The Community Champions Fund in one fell swoop.  They're dismantling the regional government offices that helped us administer that money and, with their local knowledge, made sure that it went to the places where it was most needed.  They've decided its not essential.  And they can't afford to pay for non essential things because our budget deficit is only smaller than it has been for 200 of the last 250 years, when we started keeping a tally of these things.

Cameron thinks The Big Society will fill the gap.  But I'd be interested to see how he thinks that ordinary people are going to develop the wherewithal to do that without significant support from central and local government.  Local Councillors from all over England have signed a letter to DC pointing out that cutting funding to the Voluntary Sector will have precisely the opposite effect of reducing government spending - there are many essential services provided by the Voluntary Sector that will now have to be provided for by your Local Authority.  This would probably have resulted in a huge hike in your Council Tax this year if the ConDemmed hadn't enforced a freeze on it.  So the only logical result of that is that the service provided by those voluntary groups just won't be provided by anyone anymore.  And our local communities will be all the poorer for it.

This is just one reason why we should all be angry at the sweeping cuts being made by this government.  They're illogical, they're ill thought out and they're only there to serve the needs of the rich elite.

So, I won't rant anymore.  I could go on for several hours about the cuts in Arts Funding, the undue pressure that's going to be put on GPs, the utterly horrendous hike in University Tuition fees and so on.  But this isn't really intended to be a political blog.  It's just about my thoughts.  And I thought about Jen today and wondered what she is doing now.  I'm sure she is finding a way to inspire and motivate young people - it's in her nature and she can't help it.  I just wish I could feel confident that she was getting the support to do it that she so deserves.

Finally, here's how Jen inspired and motivated my when I was young.