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Let’s build a national grid of community infrastructure

The other day I was talking timebanking with a researcher who is looking to build a network of time banks across the UK. I’ve written about timebanking before, and I’m convinced it has the potential to create economic and social opportunities for many who are currently excluded from society and from the labour market.

For those unfamiliar with the idea, it is essentially a skill swapping tool – one hour of your time teaching me to play the saxophone, say, is worth one hour of my time digging your garden. What’s really important, though, is the way it enables people who feel they have been discarded or missed out on life’s opportunities to become productive members of their communities.

In difficult times we need everyone to be productive – we can no more afford to waste people than we can afford to waste food, yet we do both on a massive scale (around £12bn worth of food is wasted each year in the UK). In Hackney, there’s a time bank for people with brain injuries run by a charity, Headway. It shows how needing help and care need not lead to dependency and a loss of self-worth.

We need more of this kind of approach to build a resilient society. My latest newsletter explores how a vision of resilience could lead to a more helpful reframing of the government’s idea of a big society, shifting the focus from arguments about the size of the state to thinking about how the state and civil society can be partners in a drive for social, economic and environmental resilience.

Part of my argument is about working at the scale we need to make a difference. There are hundreds of inspiring projects around the country that do many of the things we need to learn from if we are to build a resilient society. But an example is just that – these need to become the norm.

One thing we have not been good at in the UK is transferring learning from project to project. Cuts in funding for voluntary and community networks, nationally and at local level, will make that worse.

There are plenty of examples of government and funding organisations getting excited about innovation and new technologies, but often they seem to overlook the obvious – the need for people to be able to network, share and access help and advice without disappearing into a labyrinth filled with apparently competing organisations offering a vast range of broadly similar solutions.

Just as we have a National Grid to collect and distribute electrical power, harnessing and balancing the output of many different sources, I would suggest we need a national grid of community infrastructure – a network of networks to share learning and support organisations or communities in crisis, resourced on a continuous basis. Instead of the pot-luck of lottery grants or short-term funding programmes, we need to bring together community organisers, development trusts, local charities, housing associations and more to learn from and support each other. The aim of such a grid should not be to distribute and monitor funding so much as to supply personal support, mentoring, know-how and technical expertise.

Such a national network should complement and support the local networks that are the backbone of a resilient society. And it should be independent, perhaps funded by an endowment along the lines of UnLtd and free from political interference and policy faddism.

It’s just one facet of an approach to society that takes sustainability seriously. Start doing it, and there’s a high chance people will start to take government approaches to society seriously.

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