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Sir Clive visits Birmingham and I head for the South West

16 January 2009

Wednesday saw our first large English regional event at the lottery-funded Birmingham Botanical Gardens – the Chairman Sir Clive Booth and I are sharing these between us and this one was his. I’m told the small group discussion and interactive voting via laptops generated plenty of good stuff – I’ll find out for myself next week in Manchester and Newmarket.

Technology was at the heart of the event proceedings, with an interactive system providing those present to instantaneously publish their thoughts, ideas and questions onto a large screen. The many debates that followed were stimulating and useful and have given BIG the opportunity to listen to various West Midlands stakeholders and provide full feedback alongside the other Big Thinking consultations across the country.

I was in Exeter on Thursday for a very interesting and constructive round-table discussion with key stakeholders from the South West. I grew up in the West Country. It is where many of my family live and where I typically take my summer holidays. It is also a region that submits consistently high quality proposals to many Big Lottery Fund programmes. Our head of Region likes to joke that the South West has an image problem – everyone thinks everything there is great. The facts are somewhat different with entrenched, inter-generational worklessness and low aspiration blighting parts of Cornwall in particular and many challenges that flow from a growing number of increasingly old people isolated from one another and from essential local services.

Once again, BIG’s approach to the sustainability of projects was an issue.

‘Should we be doing more work with those in receipt of our money at an earlier stage to provide advice on connecting up with other projects or future funding streams? Should we offer more direct help to promote and develop enterprising solutions? And should we be more honest in accepting and understanding where these solutions will not be possible and the effort is therefore a time-limited one?’

There were some intriguing exchanges in relation to a fabulous young carers project associated with the Westbank Healthy Living Centre that we currently fund. One contributor noted that when this comes to an end there will still be a need to help young carers. One could argue that a decent State service should be doing this anyway. It made me think that while it is fine in itself for BIG to fund great things that work for a while, real success comes not only from achieving that impact but from securing wider influence over what happens next. A few years back one might have said that the statutory sector should have been providing money for excellent children’s play facilities or excellent school-based community sports facilities open to local people into the evenings and during holidays. But they were not.

BIG invested in both. Having seen what is possible, they are now more likely to do so. Perhaps we should be more explicit about the wider ambition to influence the context in which innovations are being tested so that when they work brilliantly, those that need to know are able – wherever possible – to step in and act appropriately.

We also talked a lot about civic participation – there was enthusiasm about forthcoming legislative opportunities for local people to have their say over developments in their area but questions about which voices would be heard.

‘Could BIG do something to connect the most isolated people with these processes – getting their issues on the table rather than always responding to someone else’s?

At our best this was happening where people saw through BIG projects the development of things that really mattered to them and so were motivated to get involved in a way that rather more esoteric discussions about community planning, while important, were harder to draw seldom-heard people into with quite the same passion.

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