People power is making an impact at the grass roots, but cuts cast a shadow

last summer, David Cameron launched his "Big Society" drive to empower communities.

It was, he said, his "great passion", to see a country where local groups could be free to run post offices, libraries and transport services - in other words to shape the world they live in. It would, he added, be a "big advance for people power".

Critics were quick to dismiss it as nothing more than a soundbite, arguing that it was an attempt to encourage ordinary people to carry out the work previously done by the public sector. The idea of galvanising people into action is nothing new, of course, and as long as there have been perceived injustices in the world there have been campaigners and activists willing to stand up against them. But at the same time there appears to be a growing appetite among the public right now to have its voice heard.

Earlier this month, chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall spearheaded a campaign to halt the practice of "discards" – where trawlermen are forced to throw fish back into the sea if they have already met their quota – and to get the nation eating more sustainable species. With the help of a series of TV programmes and his superchef friends Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal, his message hit home. In the space of just two weeks, more than 625,000 people signed up to his fish fight petition, while the big supermarkets have reported a significant rise in the sales of alternative fish.

But it's not just celebrities that are making a splash. Across Yorkshire, ordinary people are campaigning to make a difference to their local environment. In Doncaster, protesters twice halted work to chop down hundreds of trees on the town's common which were due to be felled to clear the view from the new grandstand at Doncaster racecourse. Members of campaign group the Friends of Doncaster Common only backed down this month after police threatened to arrest them for obstruction. Although campaigners were disappointed, both the Forestry Commission and Natural England have been asked to oversee the plans for felling and there may now be some regeneration.

In the village of Kettlewell, deep in the Yorkshire Dales, campaigners look set to celebrate a victory. The village's primary school was due to be closed because of the falling number of pupils. But following a fierce campaign by local people it is expected that North Yorkshire County Council will drop its closure plans at a meeting tomorrow.

There are plenty of other examples of local groups and organisations making a difference. In West Yorkshire, Hebden Bridge Community Association last year reached a deal with Calderdale Council to take over control of the town hall building – one of the first communities in the country to do so. Since then, the community-run charity has announced plans to transform the building into a thriving hub for local enterprises and creative businesses.

Peter Hirst, the association's chairman, says people in the town were determined to keep the building in some kind of public use. "The council didn't seem to want it and there was a suspicion that it would be the next asset to go. It's an iconic building that looks impressive from the outside and as is often the case in local communities, it takes threat of losing something that galvanises people into action. In Hebden Bridge, we're aware of the potential threats to things like parks and local cinemas and there are people who are concerned enough to stand up and volunteer to try and keep them going."

He believes the nature of campaigning has changed in recent times. "I don't think local authorities are seen as the enemy in the way they used to be, they can even be cast as victims now. You don't see people marching on town halls any more, protesters have become more savvy."

Even so, he believes the impending public sector cuts could hamper campaign groups in the future. "Those communities where people have the time, skills, vision, experience and resources may well prosper, but some communities will struggle, especially poorer areas where there are a lack of opportunities and this could lead to greater social divisions."

Tony Herrmann is director of COGS which manages the Yorkshire and Humberside Empowerment Partnership (YHEP) – part of a national network set up by the last government to improve the way local authorities and other public and voluntary organisations work with communities. He has been involved in community development for almost 40 years. "If you look at any one community there is usually something that sparks a certain issue," he says.

Community organisations and campaigners have always had to be smart in order to survive. "In the past they ran bingo nights and galas and now they trade online or run cafs in their community centres. So clearly one of the things that is new and making a difference to campaigning is internet access and social media. The kind of response that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall got to his campaign wouldn't have happened 20 years ago. People might have read about it in a newspaper but the number who would have written a letter to respond is minimal."

Nowadays there are pioneering groups dealing with everything from issues facing Asian women in South Yorkshire, to urban renewal projects in Bradford.

"It's not necessarily about big success stories, you can have something that just affects three streets in your area and that can make a positive difference, but there some that do take root in certain areas."

Tony points to a scheme in the Masbrough area of Rotherham, where a group of youngsters worked with the local council and Rotherham Football Club's community sports trust to help get a sports area developed.

"They talked to their local councillors, focused on a bit of land and tried to find out how they could get hold of it." They were able to get their local MP on board and because they had the right support they were able to get the funding needed to get the project off the ground. "Sometimes people become involved to prevent something happening, like demolishing a cherished local building. Other times it's to start a positive scheme to give kids something to do, but if by a combination of enterprise, hard work and luck they get going they often achieve some success," he says.

So how does all this fit in with the idea of a Big Society?" "The Big Society ambitions are for all communities – big, small, rich and poor – and on the whole most governments in the past 40 years, both Tory and Labour, have acknowledged that funding to support communities is targeted towards disadvantaged areas. But with the policy outlook and financial cuts I think that's less likely to happen, so it may be that the Big Society will enjoy success in better-off areas," he says.

"I'm not in any way saying that disadvantaged areas haven't got people with skills and resources, because there's no doubt they have. There are many active community groups and tenants associations in disadvantaged areas and people have lots of drive and energy to do that, but they may not have access to the right mix of support and funding and that's a worry if you want to achieve the kind of things that a Big Society wants."

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