Jayne Dowle: Scouting around in the ruins of the '˜Big Society'

IT'S headline news. Record numbers of young people are on the waiting list to join the Scouts. More than 50,000 boys and girls are ready and eager to learn how to tie complicated knots and embark on camping adventures, but there simply aren't enough volunteer leaders coming forward.

File photo of a Scout, as tens of thousands of young people are being forced to wait to join the Scouts, due to a lack of volunteers.

This is despite the fact that 154,000 adults already give their time freely for the organisation, more than at any other point in its history. These leaders include youth workers, charity trustees and instructors.

However Tim Kidd, UK Chief Commissioner at the Scout Association, says many more are needed. People are simply too busy. And those who do take the plunge are seeking far more flexible volunteering arrangements than in the past because of the demands of their busy lifestyles.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

It is heartening that so many youngsters are actually keen to become part of an organisation which does so much good – both in terms of personal development as well as helping local communities and good causes. It’s also impressive to know that a large number of adults are prepared to lead them.

Let’s not get too sentimental though. Mention of “Scouts” tends to evoke a certain kind of nostalgic response in the British. While its aims and achievements as a movement are admirable, it’s not the only voluntary organisation in need of help.

Does the plight of youth clubs on council estates and in isolated rural communities get quite as much attention? I think not, mainly because most of them closed down so long ago most people have forgotten that they ever existed. Does the challenge to persuade anyone under the age of 65 to become a school governor or parish councillor attract quite as much controversy?

As for junior sporting clubs, don’t get me started. I’ve seen desperate volunteer football coaches struggling to persuade anyone to even sell a raffle ticket to raise funds. And still parents turn up at training expecting their son to be transformed into the next Wayne Rooney.

So much for the idea of the “Big Society”. This ambitious altruistic notion, introduced as part of the 2010 Conservative Party manifesto, was supposed to encourage us all to give up our time freely to help other people. If seven years later one of the nation’s leading voluntary groups is still short of 17,000 leaders – as Tim Kidd estimates – the plan has not exactly turned out well.

It is notoriously difficult to give an accurate assessment of how many UK individuals do actually give up any free time to help others. The most reliable benchmark, the Cabinet Office’s community life survey, suggests that 27 per cent of adults in England take part in a voluntary activity at least once a week.

However, it is well known in volunteering circles that this percentage is dominated by active retired people with time on their hands.

The Big Society was a great idea. In principle. Unfortunately, it was thrust upon us by a political leader born of privilege, and lucky to have so much family wealth he didn’t have to work for money unless he chose to do so.

David Cameron also suffered from incredibly unfortunate timing. He tried to launch his great idea at the same time as placing the country under strict austerity measures. Rather than freeing up individuals to give something back to their communities, the pressure of simple economic survival made us all turn inwards and look to sustaining our own families first. More hours at work, or giving up your weekend to pick litter in the woods? I think I know which most of us would choose.

In addition, the slashing of public funds and cuts to local council services has brought the blow of a double-edged sword down upon voluntary activities. Not only is it more difficult than ever to run a financially-sustainable group – unless you are one of the lucky few backed by a rich philanthropist – if you offer anything that helps others, you’re likely to end up so overwhelmed by demand that the pressure becomes too much.

Homelessness. Domestic abuse. Addictions. Mental health. Vulnerable children. Talk to anyone in a voluntary organisation which deals with any of these social issues, and they will tell you that they are now acting as de facto public services. There are few other resources available. Local councils increasingly rely on charities and support groups.

My friend, who runs a café which helps the homeless and vulnerable, regularly has to conjure up full sets of furniture, even pots and pans, for people who have managed to get themselves off the streets. These are individuals who can’t even afford to buy a set of knives and forks in a charity shop.

The Big Society? It’s far from the utopia David Cameron imagined. Against the shabby, hand-to-mouth solutions it offers to the problems of 21st century Britain, we should regard the plight of the leaderless Scouts in harsh context.