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!