Positive signs on the BIg Society in Thetford

A third sector worker in Thetford was given the ear of a prominent government minister to discuss the practicalities of the Big Society.

Thetford-based Keystone Development Trust chief executive Neil Stott, along with South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss, last week met cabinet minister Oliver Letwin who is said to be part of the prime minister’s inner circle of influential decision makers.

The meeting explored the possibilities of funding, support networks and the need for the government to lead by example.

Mr Stott said the minister had listened to his suggestions and added: “It was to talk about an entrepreneurial third sector approach. How to encourage local democracy and get more people involved and how the public and private and third sector could work better together.

“We talked about the upcoming legislation and the localism bill and the impact it might have. He was very supportive. In some ways it was a very positive meeting and he listened to our ideas.”

The Big Society concept centres around encouraging communities to take on local projects including running organisations such as their local post office, pub or library, and shape housing projects, and transport services.

The Localism Bill aims to make it easier for people to take over amenities, including community buildings, and keep them part of local life, and social enterprises, voluntary and community groups could find it easier to influence how local services are improved.

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Mr Stott added: “The bits about community rights to buy are very welcome but just because it’s got the right doesn’t mean it can raise the cash to do it or has the skills to take the next step.

“People need support and very significantly the government needs to show good leadership and good models to show how this can be operational and so people understand.”

Mr Stott is co-author of The Big Society Challenge which brings together writers to explore the issues surrounding the Big Society. Keystone was earlier this year selected to take part in a pilot which will enable the organisation to employ two “senior organisers” who will in turn train a number of volunteers in a bid to execute the Big Society concept.

Ms Truss, who arranged the meeting, said: “I think Keystone is a really good operation and I wanted to make sure the senior minister in the government knew of and understood some of the things they were doing.

“I think one of the interesting things it does is put initial capital into a project like the Innovation Centre (in Croxton Road) and then get rents from businesses to make itself financially viable.

“I think that’s a very good model.”

Mr Stott will now put his suggestions in writing.