Last week the Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles gave a speechurging faith groups to make use of new powers in the Localism Bill to end their reliance on the goodwill of local authorities and to play an active and visible role in society.
He used the speech to again set out what the Government was doing to help to overcome red tape and regulation that stands in their way of people getting more involved in local life. The link for more information is http://www.communities.gov.uk/news/newsroom/1924848
Now I thought this all somewhat timely as last weekend I took the family down to Lingfield in Surrey for the village church fete which was a fabulous example of local people – enabled by the church community – in action. This fun and well supported event has prompted the below guest post from Defra’s Crispin Moor – writing in a personal capacity – in praise of the village fete:
The humble village fete is repeated hundreds and hundreds of times usually every Saturday across rural Britain during the early summer. They are held on village greens and commons, in churchyards, in school playgrounds and playing fields, or sometimes in a field lent by a local landowner, even in the often large garden of a generous local resident. Such fetes raise funds for a variety of local causes such as local heritage, charitable and sporting projects. In my case in Lingfield – as in many other villages up and down the country – our annual church fete aims to raise money for the care and repair of our local church http://www.lingfieldparishchurch.org/
I understand that in Germany they have a voluntary local tax for the care and repair of church buildings – now there’s an idea! Back here in Blighty it’s more fun: you’re expected to attend the annual fete and spend your own money. Whether on the tombola, the bric-a-brac stall (anyone for more coasters!), at the silent auction, raffles, a variety of games and sideshows from ‘splat the rat’ to the coconut shy. And then there is often a barbeque and the quintessentially English beer tent.
Now village fetes are also excellent spaces for informal local democratic discourse! This means that local people have the chance to grab a few words with their locally elected representatives, be it the local MP, parish or town councillors or even district and county councillors. Often local public services will be represented at these community events, for example with a fire engine that toddlers (and their fathers even!) can peek inside; or by the local environmental services department to talk rubbish (quite literally) in terms of recycling and rubbish collections. Often you can find the local vicar out and about in the midst of his or her flock.
Local businesses are also a strong part of this local democratic mix donating silent auction and raffle prizes, as well as providing locally produced food and so on via the beer tent, the barbeque or at other stalls.
Much enjoyment and fun is had by all, especially local children, at village fetes up and down the land. And three cheers for that.
But the volunteer effort that goes into organising and managing these events every weekend is immense. Taken as a whole, the activity, energy, goodwill and resources produced by these many hundred fetes each year is very significant. These fetes are surely the Government’s Big Society approach very much in action. Some say, given the social benefit produced, it is a shame that the state does not do just that little bit more to reinforce some of the monetary value produced, for example by gift aiding the money raised. Or else, improving further the VAT regime applying to church repairs. This sort of thinking may lie behind the recommendation made by the Commission for Rural Communities and Respublica in their recent paper on ‘The Rural Big Society’ http://www.respublica.org.uk/articles/rural-big-society that Communities and Local Government, Defra and the Office for Civil Society should engage the Church of England and the other churches with significant assets in rural England to explore how these assets can better be used to secure Big Society objectives.
Amen to that!