Can Neighbours Build The Big Society?

Harvard Professor Michael Sandel has done a couple of BBC TV programmes recently, and one was on the Big Society Neighbourly loveand Justice. The studio audience for this debate was predominantly sceptical of The Big Society and many feel that it is a rather vague notion.

Whilst consensus has not formed on a definition, the themes of it are becoming clear and can be identified in policies right across Government. The Government want local communities to be active in running schools; they want the local communities to be active in planning decisions; and they want local communities to be active in influencing health and social care.

What Sandel alluded to is that Cameron, like most Governments, wants to create a ‘good society’ and Cameron has called his vision for this the “Big Society”, which appears to be made up of lots of active little communities. This vision has ideas of neighbourliness and people giving time and talents to make their community a better place.

We met the Cabinet Office the other day to discuss how such ideas could be relevant to people needing care and support and carers. Is it possible that rather than your neighbour sitting at home watching Eastenders, they could be helping somebody who needs their shopping done, or their garden weeded, prescription picked up, or taking over from the carer for a short time to give them a break.

Do neighbours have the time to give? Do we want our neighbours to be doing things for us? Do we actually underestimate how neighbourly neighbours already are?

One objection may be that we shouldn’t have to rely on good neighbours and that the State should provide paid care workers to do these things. I actually think that Cameron believes neighbours doing it rather than paid care workers would lead to a better society, because it would lead to neighbours becoming less like strangers to each other. The ‘Neighbours’ theme tune could be his mantra “That’s when good neighbours become good friends”.

I would be interested to hear what carers and other people think about this. Do you get a lot of help from neighbours? Do you feel neighbours could do more? Are there some things that you wouldn’t want a neighbour to help with? Are you a neighbour who could give more but doesn’t know how to or doesn’t want to?



January 26, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Great blog Gordon! We at NAAPS are wrestling with some very similar thoughts. The Big Society could be characterised as the hope that you can recreate the village in today’s inner city. I don’t think you can: tackling our isolation will require new ways of linking like-minded people around their interests and the fit between one person’s needs and another’s desire to help, even if they don’t live next door to each other, or have a passion for street parties:
    The choice proposed between big government and big society is a false one. Unpaid family carers need state support; professionals and services are ineffective without community support.

    Comment by alexfoxblog | January 26, 2011 | Reply

    • Hi Alex
      That is the phrase that I’ve been looking for – recreating the golden era village community in a modern city with modern working and living practices.

      I agree that Big Society and Big Government are not necessarily in competition – it’s not as if they are two balloons in the same box competing for space to grow. Government probably has a big role to play in enabling any kind of active society.

      I like the idea in your blog of looking at other ways of trying to achieve the same connections between people.
      Cheers Alex

      Comment by Gordon Conochie | January 31, 2011 | Reply

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  3. Thanks for posting this Gordon.

    Caring and helping others are skills that we simply don’t value highly enough.

    Alex, I completely agree. Unpaid family carers need state support, the work they do is so important.

    I’m not really sure how the “Big Society” relates to carers and their work. It’s about time the government explained itself more clearly.

    Comment by Sam Butler | January 26, 2011 | Reply

  4. Good idea. Good questions. I am an informal carer and quite often it would be of geat help to link with neighbours. I like the thought to get to know the neighbours better is to be proactive. How can we build a community of closer knitted neighbours without eroding the personal discretion. Often people like to keep to themselves to avoid conflict and trouble. What is the best way to start a steering group which can impact neighbours positively? People have all different look at the way of life, different cultures etc. It needs a model, which can be applied anywhere across the society, socio groups, faith etc
    I welcome ideas, as I am doing a course at Staffs Uni.

    Comment by BEAT MUELLER | January 26, 2011 | Reply

    • Hi Beat
      It might be worth having a look at this website

      It seems that there are many different ones operating, and often doing different things in different ways.
      Could be useful to see which ones work best.
      Good luck with the course

      Comment by Gordon Conochie | January 31, 2011 | Reply

  5. I agree that caring and helping others are skills that we simply don’t value sufficiently but until the system of benefits reflects common sense rather than a balance sheet nothing will improve. I discovered today that when a married couple invest in a stairlift for themselves to make life easier – the attendance allowance pasid to the healthy one of the two is halved. Absurd.

    Comment by Doctor Neil Stirling MB ChB | January 26, 2011 | Reply

  6. A new buzz phrase …. THE BIG SOCIETY.

    In order to take advantage of whatever benefits said way of life can bring , one has to be a member.

    When so many sick \ disabled \ carers \ unemployed citizens are excluded from even being considered to be members ( through illness \ caring duties \ old age \ lack of mobility / monies \ isolation etc. etc. ) and almost totally dependent on their own ability to cope , such a Concept is meaningless.

    Only by protecting the ” Underclass ” fully from the ravishes of the free market will millions be liberated from their plight.

    Comment by Paul | January 27, 2011 | Reply

  7. For over a decade , I was posting on Forums on Carers UK \ PRT advocating their local centres to start grass roots assistance to many carers in dire need of specific help if only they had access to a local centralised hub.

    For example …. a kind of local bartering whereby a male care would exchange ironing for gardening tasks , shopping for caree sitting etc. etc. …. all done on a mutual assistance basis , some tasks taking less an hour to perform , and at times to suit both carers.

    Response over the decade ? NONE …. just a stony silence as if such a practical solution to the ordinary needs of so many of us were beneath the remit of the very people purporting to be representing carers.

    Comment by Paul | January 27, 2011 | Reply

    • Hi Paul
      Do you live near one of The Princess Royal Trust Carers’ Centres or Crossroads Care schemes? You can enter your postcode to find your nearest place on both websites. It might be worth having a chat directly with them if there is one in your area.

      I’ve also spoken to a few colleagues who work with our Carers’ Centres to develop services. They are going to raise this idea with a few of them at their next local meetings. It could also be that there are these kind of timebanks available in some areas and we could join with them to make them available to carers.

      I’m sorry that you’ve not had a response to this before, especially when it does seem as though it could help people.

      Thanks Paul

      Comment by Gordon Conochie | January 31, 2011 | Reply

      • Suffolk branch … meeting in Oulton Broad … early 2001 \ 2002 ? …. recommended the Carer barter scheme … applauded by the few other carers in attendance , looks of disbelief on faces of the PRT crew … after all , the problems faced by many 24 \ 7 carers were new to them as they had not come across many of us ” Lifers ” before , and unable to comprehend what life was like for one of us lifers on a day by day basis.

        Many postings on the PRT site followed on and off over the years …. even kept a diary on there for the impact of the cuts locally when they were first introduced several years ago … only to be met once again by a stony silence.

        Now , after trying to shut the stable door well after the horse has bolted , virtually all charities are now following the lead set by Independent Carer Forums in ” Suggesting ” the continuing Pogrom against the sick \ disabled and their carers is a touch too harsh ?

        Comment by Paul | January 31, 2011

    • Oh yes …. just a small addendum …. Oulton Broad meeting …. signed up for the Carers Flag Scheme along with the other carers in attendance …. another back burner job ? Or simply buried as it was potentially damaging to political relationships at the time ?

      In any event , full marks to the PRT for introducing said Scheme at the time , even though several Surgeries , including my former one in Thorpe Bay , Essex , had already implemented an even more effective Scheme which enabled them to employ a special Manager , solely for carers , with the savings made in identifying carers registered with them , and a brief cost saving analysis said carers provided to the running costs of the Surgery.

      Put simply , one of the Doctors worked out just how much carers registered with his Practice saved it …. part of that cost saving was returned with the employment of the special Manager.

      Comment by Paul | January 31, 2011 | Reply

      • Just checked the PRT archives …. both topics ( Carers Flag Scheme – 2005 & Starting of the LA cuts – 2006 ) both still available …. note for all , how few responses to either !

        Comment by Paul | January 31, 2011

  8. In the last couple of hours I received a phone call from a neighbour that a paramedic has knocked on her door and needs to get into the house of another neighbour who is blind, frail & 82. I rush to help and gain access to the house via a security lock box I happen to know the code, my husband has volanteered to walk the dog most afternoons. We get the dog out of the way with an early walk. The paramedic picks Joan off the fall fortunately no injuries, she was unable to get up on her own. We give her the drugs she should have taken earlier as she is also diabetic. The Paramedic has tested her thoroughly. Her family are aware and are on the way by bus.
    I am a Carer of 30years standing and my husband the dog walker is who I care for. Carers become magnets to care for other people. Why? because we are experienced in emergencies.

    The problem is that who is going to be there for me and my husband . Nobody else bothers and the person who phoned could not get away quick enough. My husband has damage to long & short term memory people steer clear of anything they do not understand.
    Community? where is it? as “Buy to Let” has taken over the estate people don’t care.
    I dread the future.

    Comment by Daphne Sanderson | January 27, 2011 | Reply

    • Hi Daphne
      I think this is the point that many people raise. There are a few people who are very active and contribute much more, whilst there are others who don’t seem to care as much.

      Do we think there are a lot of people out there who want to be neighbourly but don’t know how to be? Or that people aren’t neighbourly because they don’t want to be?

      One thing I’m sure of is that you are the kind of person that I would love to have as my neighbour anyway!
      Take care Daphne

      Comment by Gordon Conochie | January 31, 2011 | Reply

      • Thanks for the comment Gordon you have lifted my spirit. I have just returned from 2days away staying with an ex- carer fifteen miles away. Such a moral booster to be pampered and waited on and to be understood. To let go of the caring role is such a relief. This reinforces the argument that groups of Carers meeting together can have spin offs.

        Comment by Daphne Sanderson | February 2, 2011

  9. Most carers have good neighbours! The shocking winter weather proved that to thousands of carers as neighbours took time to shop and check on carers and the people they support. This is the outcome of discussion at the January 2011 carers meeting in Berwick-upon-Tweed. If Cameron wants neighbours to do the governments work then he should ensure that carers have the finances to reimburse them for thei time and other costs.

    Comment by Terry White | January 27, 2011 | Reply

  10. The “Big Society” takes us all back to the days when neighbours were good mates who’d help you out at difficult times. And although there were examples of that it depended on those people to be outgoing and supportive of their local community, and there has always been a shortage of people like that.

    And when it comes to personal care, I would not want a neighbour – untrained and probably so far unknown – to go anywhere near me (when the near-inevitable happens). I want to know that person is CRB checked, properly trained, and actually has some knowledge of what needs to be done – and how.

    Comment by charles47 | January 28, 2011 | Reply

  11. I have lived in my house over 30 years and barely know my neighbours but neighbours change. People get fed up listening to your problems and after a while all disappear even friends. Everyone has their own life to lead and no time of their own. You highlight problems but even if it is to officials they reword what you complain about so it does not sound so bad.What I need most right now is someone to be a friend to my young 23 year old daughter.

    Comment by simone | January 28, 2011 | Reply

  12. I’ve just had to start relying on neighbours to put my bins out for me as my husband is too I’ll to do it when I’m away working. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this, it seems such a small thing but makes such a difference to me to have one less thing to worry about. But I do feel “beholden” to them. After years of coping by myself it’s the first practical help I’ve ever needed and it’s hard to come to terms with it. There’s mo way I could contemplate anything other than this so for me it will not be a very Big Society.

    Comment by Sancal53 | January 28, 2011 | Reply

    • Hi Simone and Sancal
      Sorry for the joint reply to both of you. I think both of your comments reveal how many carers feel completely alone and isolated.

      Simone, I hope that your daughter does find good friends, and also that you get the chance to have a bit of life of your own. As you say everyone does have a life of their own – except for too many carers it seems.

      And Sancal, I hope you don’t feel beholden to your neighbours. They are probably delighted to be able to help and would hate to think it made you feel guilty in any way. Of course, I could be wrong as I’ve never met your neighbours but I hope you keep on getting a bit of support from them.

      Sancal, you too have hit the nail on the head, carers would often settle for a small society never mind a big one.

      Comment by Gordon Conochie | January 31, 2011 | Reply

      • Hi Gordon. I have had no life of my own for 23 years.I am getting older now and have forgotten my needs… My daughter has never had friends and no respite either because she could not handle noise.. She had a wrong diagnosis for 21 years. It has really messed up her life and mine..We are still fighting it.. three years now….. but we hold on to faith.We have exhausted everything, groups choirs etc… she refused to go in the end…. we just have each other… and I am lucky that my daughter has not got such a high disability. I adire the strength of other carers. they are all fantastic people.
        We have all share moments of despair but we all rise again each morning.
        You know all this anyway Gordon.. lol.

        Comment by Simone | February 4, 2011

  13. I agree with Gordon that for a community to work well there is need for a catalyst around mutual interest. How about transforming the power of the information highways by creating networks of Roam Reporters, who can provide accessible local, street-level information about local support that is often not on the NHS or local authority radar?

    Comment by Bob Dennis | January 28, 2011 | Reply

  14. I am grateful not to my neighbours but those who are at the Barge Layfield Road gillingham. Who have made my daughter feel wanted and like a person.They all talk to her.

    I am not grateful for those in other pubs who complained that our life stories made them miserable and they did not want to hear it at the pub.. may god forgive them and I can only feel sadness and pray those people never ever become carers.

    Comment by simone | January 29, 2011 | Reply

  15. Great idea in theory. I have excellent neighbours but would be reluctant to ask for help as some of my neighbours are elderly and the rest are out at work all day.

    Comment by Julia Tyrrell | February 14, 2011 | Reply

  16. Not all of us have neighbours who you’d want help from.

    On one side, I have an elderly and increasingly frail couple – they’re respectable enough but not in the best of health.

    On the other side, I have a drug user who is trying to kick the habit, and a petty thief/thug.

    Comment by Octarine | March 6, 2011 | Reply

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