“The council doesn’t have all the answers” was one of the closing comments by the council’s deputy leader, Maurice Heaster, during a debate on the Wandsworth Challenge last week. I would hope, to most, that this is fairly self-evident, but sometimes you wonder. You wonder first because there is a tendency for government (of whatever level and whatever form) to act like it does have all the answers. And then you wonder because there’s so often the presumption stated that the government – or council – should ‘do something’.

One of the things that has amused me over the recent protests against cuts is how often you hear “tee hee, I bet this isn’t what David Cameron had in mind for the Big Society!” It amuses me because, actually, I think it probably is what he had in mind. He might not have specifically envisaged people super-gluing themselves to the windows of Top Man (because, apparently, Philip Green should be sloppier about running a business and pay more overheads) or setting fire to the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree, but he did want to see an engaged population that were active, not passive, clients of the state.

And, for me, that’s what the Wandsworth Challenge is about. It’s inviting everyone to be engaged. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I, or the council, will like all the ideas. And it doesn’t mean that the council will implement each one. But the council will have to justify its decision.

That’s where my real interest lies, in the interplay between community empowerment and politics. It’s certainly true that power needs redistributing from Whitehall down to the town hall and from there to the ordinary citizen. But that’s not to say that the town hall doesn’t still have a role to play where it is best placed to deliver a service or a strategy. This is something that could re-democratise local government and local politics, giving everyone a role to play (as big or small as they like) and engaging them in the process. Everyone is better – community, council and government – when each is playing a full role and challenging the other to be responsive and do the same.

You don’t have to look far in the Wandsworth Challenge to see the small and large ‘p’ politics. The three tests themselves are politically loaded, despite seeming fairly innocuous:

  1. Does it help achieve a distinctively high quality of life for our residents?
  2. Does it make the most of the resources available from all areas?
  3. Does it enable individuals to take more responsibility for their own lives?

The first two are, certainly, a matter of opinion. For example, we could make Battersea Park into allotments, for some that would pass all three tests – with people enjoying the great outdoors (test one), using open space for food production (test two) and help increase self-sufficiency (test three). But what about those who value the park for sport and recreation? Those allotments would fail the first two, and possibly even the third if they were, for some reason, unable to use an alternative.

So, if faced with competing suggestions about the use of Battersea Park (implying there are different views and priorities out there) the council itself will have to show prioritisation – I suspect in this case we might favour, and therefore give a higher value to, the leisure use than the food use.

And the Wandsworth Challenge is, like the Big Society, something that harnesses the power of the nebulous. It’s back to the Patton quote I’ve mentioned before: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” By not defining it too tightly we give free rein to ideas and innovation, and with a population of 280,000 people, there have to be some great ideas out there.

So, what are your ideas? What do you want to see? What don’t you want to see? How should we capture them? Or are you just not enthused?

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