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Governance | Robert Ashton | 21 May 2012

Community isn't led by government, so why wait for it to tell you what to do, protests Robert Ashton.

Last week, I was asked to speak at the inaugural session of a new breakfast networking group. I usually give these groups a miss; too often they focus on quantity rather than quality of leads generated. It’s nice to collect lots of business cards, but in my experience that’s not how new business relationships are formed.

This group however was a little different. Started by a firm that publishes local magazines, it was held in a lovely old pub in one of my favourite market towns. This was not going to be formula networking, but 60 people with a shared interest in building their local economy.

All the right people turned out to hear me speak. The town’s district councillor, the vicar and some local sixth-formers, as well as many local traders and business-owners. Of course there were also a few life coaches too, they never miss a networking opportunity. I talked about politics, sex and religion, or rather used these headings to grab attention and make some pertinent points.

Like so many towns, this one had also pitched in to be a ‘Portas pilot’. I explained that Mary Portas, talented though she is, was in this instance literally just another carrot dangling on the end of a government stick. There are always strings attached too, with the rules of the game set centrally.

My suggestion was that rather than chase the carrot dangled by government they start with what they collectively want. I told them to focus on their:

  • Passion – what’s the collective vision for the town;
  • People – who are the folk that will make it unique;
  • Place  - what’s the starting point and what already brings people to the area;
  • Pounds – putting their own money in will show commitment and win match funding;
  • Push – things will only happen when they push, and keep pushing for what they believe in.

I hate to see people competing for government handouts. If a town wants to raise its game, it should just get on and do it. Once they’re organised, focused and raising pledges, they’ll quickly win the support of others; LEPs, local authorities and yes, government too.

Carrots and sticks are for donkeys. We need market towns that see themselves as something better!

 

Mike Paice
Freelance writer etc.
29 May 2012

Totally with you on this one, Robert. What should be kept in mind is that government initiatives are devised primarily to make government look good and re-electable. I say this not because I think all government initiatives are a waste of time but the biggest string attached to any government hand out of our money is that it comes without heart. Many recipients feel that, not only will they have a much needed cash injection but that they will get political interest and support in what they are trying to achieve. My experience is that interest and support will be fleeting and only offered on the most publicity friendly projects that make the government look good. Better to follow your (Robert’s) suggestions and then, when that politician comes to you and says “You’re wonderful. Let me tell the country about you”, ask “what’s in it for us?”

Ian Graham
Ward Councillor
Broadland Council
21 May 2012

Robert, a lot of what you said made sense. I think Aylsham does now have an organisation that is passionate about the Town and it’s members wants the Town to go forward. You are also right about Government money. I believe that my own Council has sometimes been seduced into taking cash to quickly. Beware the hand that feeds you.

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Robert Ashton

Robert Ashton is a social entrepreneur, campaigner and author.

Robert is a vice patron of Norfolk Community Foundation and chairs Human Library UK CIC.

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