Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Big Society up north

Chapeltown Baths, near Sheffield, shows amazing things can happen when the state steps back
It’s a phrase that’s in danger of becoming a cliché in today’s media and, to be fair to my fellow journalists, people do say it a lot. It generally goes along the lines of ‘this Big Society thing? We’ve been doing it for ages.’

It’s a good line - and I have to admit to quoting it once or twice myself - but I’m quite certain David Cameron is already aware of the fact. The point of the Big Society, as far as I understand it, is not to take credit for these people’s invaluable work but to encourage more than the current handful to take part in it.

Of course that doesn’t stop people - particularly in this neck of the woods - using the old ‘fig leaf for cuts’ argument. But a thing to remember about Barnsley is that, rightly or wrongly, it is a town heavily dependant on public spending and, with swingeing cuts to council budgets beginning to be felt, its removal is having a marked effect on many peoples’ lives. But, like great bush fires, it is often from the greatest devastation that the strongest shoots will grow.

Take, for example, one of Barnsley Council’s most unpopular decisions of late - the closure of three loss-making public baths and leisure centres across the borough. One of these fell on Penistone - a Tory heartland (and island in a sea of red) - where a few of the rural town’s residents had an idea: if it’s closing, why not run the leisure centre ourselves? Wasting no time, they have already been in talks with the council over devising a business plan for a not-for-profit company and reckon they can have the doors open again by autumn.

It was not an original idea, however, and the fate of Chapeltown Baths a few miles down the road has greatly buoyed their spirits. The 50-year-old building was itself earmarked for closure as long ago as 1995 by Sheffield City Council but was taken over by a similar band of concerned residents.
More than 15 years on, it is still run by the same community foundation - an impressive achievement.

But what is truly remarkable is that it is doing so far better than the council ever did. As chairman Kath Burgess told me; more people are using the baths, its workforce has tripled and - most importantly - annual turnover has increased. Where the council saw only desert, the community has made it bloom. And, interestingly (though this will come as no surprise to business owners), it is the perennial insecurity of the enterprise that Kath attributes to its success.

“We’ve increased use and turnover,” she said, “but that’s because we’ve had to. We’ve had to look at everything we use - space, energy, staffing - and ask ourselves how we can make it more efficient. We’ve put in energy efficient lighting, utilised rooms for meeting areas, a solarium, exercise rooms, holistic therapy, a gym - we’ve added a few strings to the bow all to bring in a secondary income.”

Survival is one of the most powerful motivators for a business and, where the entrepreneur is sustained by the promise of financial and personal success, not-for-profit enterprises like Chapeltown Baths can be driven by the sincere desire of its stakeholders to preserve a much-loved pillar of their community.

This is what the Big Society is about - not just alleviating government coffers at a time of austerity but giving people greater control of the services they use and, as often follows, improving them, too.

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