Space for our voices to be heard

John Osmond welcomes a new programme being developed by the Big Lottery in Wales

Is it counter-intuitive that people gamble more in a recession? Be that as it may the Big Lottery Fund’s income is going up at the moment, which is good news for recipients in Wales. The Big Lottery reckons it’s going to make an extra £5o million in the period between 2009 and 2015, directly because of extra income due to the recession. It seems that when times are hard people are more willing place a bet on becoming a millionaire. As a result it is one of the few areas in public policy where the talk is of expanding rather than contracting initiatives.

In Wales lottery spending is running at about £1 million a week. At the moment much of this is being delivered through demand-led programmes – ‘Awards for All’ which funds projects up to £5,000, and ‘People and Places’, which supports projects costing between £5,000 and £1 million. Increasingly, however, the Big Lottery in Wales is seeking a more strategic approach, via three main funding streams:

•    A Community Asset Transfer programme, worth £13 million, launched last October, which supports the handing over of public assets to be run by the voluntary sector.
•    An Older People programme, worth £20 million, which will be launched in June.
•    A Citizen’s Voice programme, worth £15 million, to be launched in Spring 2011.

The Older People programme, operating over the next five years, will support projects that improve social interaction amongst older people (defined as those over 50), exploit opportunities that getting older brings, lead to greater independence and choice for older people, and promote the development of advocacy initiatives.

Most innovative, however, could prove the Citizen’s Voice programme, which will run over three to five years. This is aimed at encouraging people to become more involved in voluntary organisations and finding new mechanisms for people to have greater influence on the decisions that affect their local communities.

There is a danger, of course, that the funding could be spread so thinly across a wide range of small local initiatives that at the end of the day it will leave no lasting impact. What is needed is a strategic approach to a relatively small number of projects that can leave a permanent imprint, both in their own terms but also in providing examples for others to follow.

If this is to succeed then the Big Lottery should adopt a hands-on role in identifying activities and projects that, with the right support, could have the potential of becoming leaders in their field. The trick will be to discover and encourage initiatives that may be small, but are responding to real needs as defined by people within their communities rather than chosen and directed by organisations that are already publicly funded.

One example of what can be achieved is the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. This began as a very small operation in the 1970s, put together by a handful of practicing artists from a variety of disciplines who saw the need for a space where they could display their work and get a public response. In the early years this received very little outside help, but grew organically into one of today’s leading centres of its kind, not just in Wales but in the whole of the UK. It is much more than an arts centre, but is very much a community-focused meeting place for debate and socialising as well. We could do with many more such spaces throughout Wales, as venues where the citizen’s voice can be heard and exchanged.

On the face of it such an approach might not fit the Big Lottery’s present thinking about how it is going to direct its Citizen’s Voice programme. One senses that the programme has been prompted by concern about a lack of political engagement, with falling turn-outs in elections, whether they be for Westminster, the National Assembly or local authorities.

However, active citizenship can be promoted in any number of ways. The difficult thing for the Big Lottery will be to measure the effectiveness of what it supports. In the end, simply helping with bottom-up and locally-driven initiatives to provide user-friendly spaces for people to come together to engage in arts-based activities might be one of the most effective ways of pump-priming people’s involvement in their local communities. If the Big Lottery’s new initiative can find ways of achieving this then it will lay the foundations for a lasting impression on Wales’s civic culture.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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