GDL essay competition

The Everyman: They Who Will Realise Our Big Society

By Portia Durand-Henry

Healers, miracle workers, saviours. Doctors play a vital role in society, dedicating their lives to keeping the nation healthy, fit and alive. They command high levels of respect, developing trust between themselves and patients, often guiding them through good times and bad.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) doctors take this dedication to new heights, volunteering their efforts and medical expertise in some of the most dangerous and impoverished parts of the world while also offering training in those areas where often there is none.

MSF received e665m (£405m) via public and private donations in 2009, spending e617m in the same year. Frequenting more than 60 ­countries, they regularly risk life and limb in war-torn countries and hostile situations. With all the media attention that comes with such high-­profile roles, you would be forgiven for thinking that it was these extremely well-funded, coordinated and efficient organisations that were responsible for the volunteerism in the nation.

Indeed, with A-listers such as Angelina Jolie often being photographed jet-setting across the globe serving in her role as United Nations ­Goodwill Ambassador, all too often it is the media face of volunteering that captures the ­public’s ­imagination. Although Jolie can be ­commended for her voluntary work, especially in respect of the strides she has made in the lives of refugees in countries throughout the world, unfortunately volunteering can be easy fodder for the fickle among celebrities, chasing newspaper column inches rather than offering their services for more generous or selfless reasons.

Now consider the silent volunteer, those ­members of society who are unable to fly off to alluring destinations but who seize the chance to bring about a difference in the lives of others within the community that they live. They may not garner media attention or public praise, but for them charity begins at home. Are these people not as worthy as any other?

Prime Minister David Cameron thinks so. His Big Society idea calls for a greater sense of “personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility”, whereby members of society work with a more collegiate approach to improve their community not through state ­control but through the dynamics of social responsibility. More power is given to those in local neighbourhoods and people are encouraged to work together in order to solve problems that afflict their communities.

Liverpool, the Eden Valley in ­Cumbria, Windsor and Maidenhead in Berkshire, and Sutton and Cheam in South-West London have volunteered to take part in a pilot of the scheme (Liverpool has since pulled out and Tendring will now take its place). These authorities will have access to the aptly named Big Society Bank, with the Government attaining £200m from financial ­institutions to invest in the ­voluntary sector.

Meals on Wheels is an ­existing representative of this ­community volunteerism, with the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service and other willing individuals delivering meals to those unable to cook for ­themselves or who are housebound, ­specifically the disabled or elderly.

“I started volunteering as soon as I could and I’ve been ­delivering Meals on Wheels for about 10 years,” says John, a voluntary Meals on Wheels driver. “I get a lot of pleasure from it, as well as meeting people.”

This service is vital in the community, delivering more than nine million meals each year around the UK. For some it is even more indispensable, as not only do volunteers supply much-needed meals, but they also provide a source of contact for those unable to leave their houses.

The Big Society sentiment can also be seen in those who help out in bustling Charing Cross Hospital, ­situated in Hammersmith, London.

At any given time, approximately 300 volunteers support the hospital, with roles ranging from welcoming patients into the hospital to helping out as a DJ on the hospital radio station.

Dorit Haines, a volunteer for 34 years, has worked in the gift shop, kept patients company and now works on the information desk. She says she finds it “interesting to deal with patients and members of the ­public”.

It is this attitude that can encourage others to take up the same mantle, informally even if not formally. Haines and John may be volunteers with acknowledged organisations, but that does not have to stop any person from making the active and independent decision to make a difference in the community in which they live.

Perhaps the old lady who lives a few doors down needs help carrying her shopping up the stairs? Or your ­neighbour is struggling with their exams? Just by offering a helping hand you can partake in the simple act of ­volunteering. Volunteering does not always need to be structured – if ­someone has a need that another can fulfil then it makes sense to solve this.

The plan to launch a yearly ­celebratory day to acknowledge the work of such Big Society groups marks a welcome change from the cult of celebrity; volunteering may not be glamorous but publicly recognising the important contributions of the average citizen makes volunteering less a thing that others do and something that the whole of society and communities can engage in.

This is particularly useful in times when even the most resilient of ­communities today are weaker than the weakest of 1971 and a staggering 97 per cent have become more ­fragmented in the last 30 years. The Big Society notion can not only pave the way to mending what is commonly believed to be a broken ­society, but can also increase active ­participation in our communities given that only 3 per cent of the population engages in civic ­society on a regular basis and ­volunteering levels have remained more or less the same for the last decade.

Not only will this lead to more ­positive thinking of those who share their ­communities – only 31 per cent of people agree that generally speaking most ­people can be trusted – but will ­empower citizens who have traditionally been at the mercy of their councils when it comes to public services.

The local post office, for example, which services the needs of many in the community ranging from the ­elderly collecting their pensions to the young having access to forms for new ­passports or driving licences, has come under fire, with more than 1,000 shut or sold off by the end of 2010. Under Big Society plans, every member of a community would be a volunteer and so would be able to take over the running of such amenities.

The younger generation have been somewhat demonised due to the loutish, yobbish and disrespectful behaviour of a minority, but they can now be rewelcomed into the ­community with the establishment of the National Citizen Service.

As Schmoovy Izzam says: “As a young person, I often feel that the media thinks my generation to be fickle and lazy, so even though I may want to help out, I still feel that I’m being judged the same as someone my age who just wouldn’t bother.”

The National Citizen Service gives young people the opportunity to be active in their community. They are offered a placement in such places as a care home or as a volunteer with the local police. In this way they are valued not only as volunteers but as leaders of the future, people whose experiences will follow them into adulthood, ­shaping their ideas of social ­responsibility and volunteerism.

Given that the population of the UK is set to rise to 77 million by 2050, it is up to the collective nation to ensure that volunteering does not become something that others engage in but an ingrained practice whereby everyone is responsible for contributing to the social landscape of their communities.

Although the people of Britain may not all be rich, famous, global volunteers, they do hold their future in their hands. It will be all of society, their ­collaboration with one another and their generosity of character that brings the nation into a new and ­generative age.

As David Cameron affirms: “The ­success of the Big Society will depend on the daily decisions of millions of people – on them giving their time, effort, even money, to causes around them.”

This is an edited version of the article by the winner of BPP’s GDL place