THE Land Trust welcomes the Big Society initiative, as many of its values lie at the heart of our own work. However, we are concerned that problems will arise if "social change" is "run by the people, for the people" without the necessary support networks in place for volunteers.
If the Government doesn't recognise the need for sustainable support, then projects are at risk of ending up in a worse state than they initially were.
At the Land Trust, we strongly advocate localism, which is a key aspect of our activities. By providing cost-effective management solutions for open spaces, we work to ensure areas can be regenerated and managed effectively in the long-term. The South Yorkshire Community Woodlands are a great example of this. This portfolio of six sites, covering around 400 hectares, includes Bentley, Dinnington, Kiveton, Brodsworth, Cudworth Common and Phoenix Park.
The South Yorkshire Community Woodlands were all former collieries which closed during the 1990s. Between 2003 and 2006, the Homes and Communities National Coalfield Programme restored the sites into community spaces.
On completion, the woodlands were handed over to the Land Trust for management. We were able to offer a sustainable and cost-effective exit for the land owners by protecting the investment in restoring the land and securing the long-term future of the space. What's more, we appointed community rangers to work at a local level and deliver added-value activities to the community. This ensures the woodlands deliver massive benefits to local communities, many of which are situated in deprived areas.
While this example proves the Big Society philosophy can work, it's important to remember that these projects do not run on the goodwill of volunteers alone. The schemes rely heavily on management teams and funding. Without these fundamental elements, such initiatives could not work.
While it's important for people to have a say and a role in shaping and caring for their local area, the Government is wrong to expect volunteers to carry out tasks in their spare time and for free when they are currently delivered by trained professionals who are being paid.
The Land Trust firmly believes that we can't expect projects lending themselves to the Big Society ethos to work if they rely solely on unpaid volunteers giving up their spare time.
From financial control and fundraising to public liability and bio-diversity planning, land ownership and management comes with many arduous responsibilities. Rather than benefit the area in question, it would be counterproductive to completely hand over Big Society projects to enthusiastic, selfless hard-working, but ultimately untrained, unpaid and unsupported volunteers.
There's also the issue of sustainability – not in an environmental sense, but in terms of the volunteers. Over time, people move areas or change jobs, lifestyle or priorities. Community groups need a constant supply of participants; otherwise dwindling volunteer numbers could force them to come to end – and who will pick up the tab then?
Open spaces that are not managed correctly run the risk of attracting issues associated with neglected areas and falling into disrepair. The land can become detrimental to the community, costing more in the long run and trapping the community in a cycle of deprivation.
A proven solution to these challenges lies in using an income stream or identified endowment to provide sustained support for communities' volunteering projects and land management. By offering advice and guidance, carrying the risks, taking care of the often onerous legal liabilities and managing all back office functions, communities can be freed up so they are able to look after the space in a way that suits them best.
We've successfully achieved this with the South Yorkshire Community Woodlands.
This tested framework, which provides communities with a support network to ease the burdens of land management, has been implemented across the country. By safeguarding funds that provide a steady income stream for local authorities to manage projects at a local level, protection is afforded to the often beleaguered parks service and grounds maintenance jobs.
Support networks and systems are necessary in the Government's Big Society initiative to ensure communities are empowered to take positive steps to improve their local areas. This has to be constant support – not just during the set up phase. If the Government doesn't implement such frameworks into their planning around their latest initiative, then they run the risk of the Big Society turning into a Big Flop.
Euan Hall is chief executive of the Land trust