Birmingham already has a Big Society

By on 15/02/2011 in Blog

Cllr Martin MullaneyCabinet Member for Leisure Sport and Culture, Cllr Martin Mullaney, looks at the value of volunteering in Birmingham.

So the Big Society is back in the headlines with a vengeance. The label alone sparks major debate, while critics inevitably claim this is merely a ruse to bridge the gap left by nationwide cuts.

Whatever label we use though, I believe the community spirit that leads people to selflessly give up their time for the benefit of others has long been alive and well here in Birmingham.

Long before the phrase Big Society was first uttered, people across all communities in this city were working together, giving time and expertise for the good of the wider community.

I myself came into politics with a strong background in volunteering and I'm well aware of the massive contribution volunteers make to daily life in Birmingham.

I know from first-hand experience that volunteers have a real passion for the work they do and as a city council we would be mad not to harness that passion. We work closely with volunteers in a wide number of areas and I believe this is a mutually beneficial relationship.

Take for example our wonderful Friends groups in parks across the city.  There are more than 100 Friends groups working as part of Birmingham Open Spaces Forum and these groups make a significant contribution to the management of our parks and open spaces, carrying out conservation work are organising activities.

To put the value of volunteers into some context, Birmingham City Council's Environment and Culture directorate has compiled a report into the value of volunteering to the directorate.

Amazingly the work undertaken by voluntary groups and individuals is worth over £4.6 million a year.

These heroes include 1,500 volunteers who offer more than 100,000 hours a year to help run a variety of community based arts programmes, while …

The report states: Volunteers are a tremendous and valuable asset to the Directorate and their contribution assists with the delivery of our services in a variety of ways. For example:

  • Direct delivery of service which allows the City Council to offer services it may not be able to provide otherwise or enhances existing service provision.
  • Assistance with the delivery of major events.
  • Assistance with the evaluation of our services. For example, Highways' Volunteer Lay Assessors evaluate the quality of services provided by contractors and utility companies.
  • Providing input and feedback which helps us to inform and shape the services we deliver
  • Whilst benefiting those who volunteer, it also saves the City Council money. The value of volunteering to the Directorate is in excess of £4.6m.

Volunteers are ‘recruited’ from a range of areas. They can be individuals, existing community groups, Friends groups and groups that are established to meet a specific need.

The age of volunteers ranges from 8 to 80! The area of work can influence the age of volunteers e.g. youth sport events attract younger volunteers and other areas may appeal more to school/college leavers and students. However, what is apparent is that there are many advantages from working with volunteers. For example:

  • It's an excellent way of engaging with community groups and individuals, and provides a mechanism for inviting them to feel part of our services and activities.
  • They can provide a new way of looking at our services, and can contribute additional knowledge and expertise. 
  • They can be positive and influential advocates and can raise the profile of a given project or institution.
  • Some student volunteers are undertaking professional qualifications in the subject area and it provides them with practical experience. Other volunteers who maybe retired have some professional knowledge and experience which they wish to share and which we can benefit from.
  • Work is undertaken which otherwise would not be carried out and at low cost. 
  • They make a real difference in the community and help us to improve our current and future service delivery. 
  • Volunteers can act as eyes and ears for us in their community and also act as community leaders. 
  • They are committed individuals who have the wider interests of the community at heart/wishing to improve their ‘quality of life’ through volunteering.

The volunteering programmes also help promote community cohesion by providing an opportunity for people from different backgrounds to meet and work together for a common goal. 

The Faith and Climate Change programme has gained national recognition for its ability to bring different faiths together.

There is tremendous scope for the use and projected use of volunteers in the future.  For example:

  • Some services have drafted a Volunteer Policy exploring how to 'recruit' volunteers in the future and take a more targeted approach, which will also be of greater benefit to prospective volunteers.
  • Volunteers will always be used within the sporting environment to support the delivery of activities and programmes.  The future use of sports volunteers in Birmingham is crucial in supporting the comprehensive events calendar (2012 and beyond) as well as the community approach to sport and leisure within the directorates and with partners. 
  • FWM Street Champions programme is currently being funded through WNF.  They are actively seeking to turn this into a social enterprise with the assistance of BVSC in order to sustain the longevity of the scheme.
  • Within Parks the number of individuals carrying out an 'assistant' (ranger, warden, animal carer) role is increasing year on year and there is scope for the Service to more actively organise Corporate Volunteer Days and secure the funding that these events bring with them. Currently various third sector organisations will contact The Ranger Service with “client” groups looking for volunteer opportunities/team building days. The Service needs to be in a position to capture these clients directly through wider marketing and promotion of opportunities available.
  • There is scope to increase the number of Highways' lay assessors. In order to do this information related needs to be readily available at all levels.

Now it must be pointed out that this report looks at just one directorate and there are, I'm sure, other examples of volunteers carrying out highly valuable work across other areas of Birmingham City Council.

Whether or not we call this the Big Society in action is hardly the issue. I don't care what label we use, I just think it's important to recognise the contribution made by these groups and individuals and hopefully we can develop further relationships in the future.

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