The Real Big Society

There is no escape from election campaigning.  Over the weekend, a community group that I helped set up – Shandon Local Food Group – had our first local food fair, with local farmers and producers descending on our part of south-west Edinburgh to sell fresh fare. It was a huge hit, with hundreds of locals coming through the door.  Producers beamed over satisfyingly empty boxes and bags of produce as the day passed and the most common question was “When’s the next one?”

So where’s the election issue?  Well, we even had a visit from our would-be MSP for Edinburgh Southern, Labour’s Paul Godzik, who I have tipped in an earlier blog to defeat sitting MSP Mike Pringle in May.  We were happy for Paul to be photographed with our material.  And I am sure he’ll remember that there’s no such thing as a free lunch if he makes it to Holyrood in six weeks!

But there’s no escaping politics more broadly either. The germ of the Shandon Local Food Project came from me attending an open meeting for community groups organised by Edinburgh Green Party in November 2008.  The packed meeting was addressed by David Gunn of the Climate Challenge Fund, the programme of community grants successfully proposed by the Green MSPs in the first budget negotiations with the Scottish Government in 2007-08.  Four years and £37 million later, hundreds of projects have benefited from the leg-up which the grants provide.

I left that meeting in 2008 thinking that if other areas can do it so can Shandon. And so, a few weeks later Shandon Local Food Group was born, with a huge and enduring response from our community and our own modest CCF grant in 2009-10, from which we’ve never looked back.

This is real “Big Society” in action: community and voluntary effort, yes, but backed by a political and public sector commitment that allows it to spread its wings.  It is the second bit that David Cameron just does not get, I fear.

So that’s why I am proud to be a community activist, working with people from all political persuasions, and none, on things that enhance our local quality of life.  But just as proud to be a Green and know that here’s a set of principles that cherishes and enhances community action in its own right, not merely as way of filling the vacuum left by an ideological assault on the state.