Monday, May 30, 2011

The Big Society BBQ

Being foolish enough to follow Sally Bercow on Twitter, I get to read all sorts of ridiculous nonsense. Like the following exchange:

I don't know why people have so much trouble with the Big Society concept - perhaps it is a combination of lefties being intentionally idiotic as above, or the extent to which we have allowed the state to nationalise personal responsibility - but in case it isn't obvious to Mrs Speaker, a Big Society BBQ will be one where people help each other, rather than relying on the state to do everything. Reminds me of a story...

Knewlab is a small village near where I grew up in Kent. They always used to hold an annual BBQ, organised by a couple of longstanding village residents. Residents chipped in a donation for the food, the drinks and the charcoal, and the whole village used to come along to the village green and meet their neighbours - it was part of what made Knewlab such a great place to live.

The organisers were chatting to some members of the parish council, and mentioned that organising the BBQ was quite a lot of work, and they could always do with some more help. They meant that a few more volunteers wouldn't go a miss now it had become so popular, but the parish council misunderstood this.

At the next meeting, they agreed that in order to protect this village institution, the parish council should offer to organise the annual village BBQ. Having been reassured all the familiar parts of the event would be kept in place, the organisers were only too happy to let the council take over the following year.

Things moved very quickly at the council. The Health and Safety committee met in September soon after that year's BBQ to review what had happened. This was an important first step, now the event was going to be run properly. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come, but that first meeting didn't go well. The parish clerk reported some grievous shortcomings. There was no health and safety plan for the event, so who knows what risks were being taken. The Parish Council, with their new BBQ organising responsibilities were now feeling quite time pressured, so they agreed the best thing to do would be to hire a external health and safety consultant to review the event.

Having come highly recommended by the County Council, they duly appointed a health and safety consultant who had a lot of experience of working with Councils to review the event. He spoke to the previous organisers, and many other stakeholders, and produced a lengthy report. It was damning. Amongst other things, the food was being cooked by people from the village who had no food safety training. There was no fire safety and evacuation plan, and no fire extinguishers. There was no safety warnings posted around the bouncy castle to protect the children of the village - and as the parish council knew, there is no risk too small to consider when it comes to protecting our children. Furthermore, there was no public liability insurance for the event. One dodgy sausage, or slightly over boisterous bouncing on the bouncy castle, leaving an injured villager, and the organisers could find themselves on the wrong end of a lawsuit before you can say 'ambulance-chasing-no-win-no-fee-lawyers-r-us'. Now the event was being run properly, the parish council had to act. Insurance was purchased. Under the County wide purchasing framework agreement with 'Very Large Services Co plc', several shiny new fire extinguishers were purchased (although there was some murmerings that shortly before it shut down last year, the village hardware store did seem to be selling some very similar extinguishers quite a lot cheaper). It was agreed that all volunteers who would be involved in cooking or preparing food would need to go on a food safety training course. And some notices were drafted to warn parents of the dangers of the bouncy castle. One parish councillor suggested that in order to protect the children, all adults helping at the event needed a full Criminal Records Bureau check. But this was felt to be way over the top, and sanity prevailed - only those adults helping at the bouncy castle and the soft drinks stall would need to be checked.

The event was being run properly now, but the costs were racking up. The Health and Safety consultant wasn't cheap, and they had to budget for printing notices and food safety courses. Some of this of course was start up costs that were taken from parish reserves, but with the new annual costs it was decided they would need to sell tickets. The price was set at £10 pounds - slightly higher than people usually donated on average, but a small price to pay for running the event properly.

That year's event was a great success - the weather was glorious, everyone had a great time, and the parish council felt sure people appreciated how much safer the event was. But in the follow up meeting, a couple of issues were noted. Mrs Miggins, who used to produce some excellent home-made pork pies, said she had been preparing food since before the war without poisoning anyone, and wasn't about to go on some course teaching grannies how to suck eggs. She had a great time attending the BBQ, but it did mean food preparation helpers were slightly down.

It was also noted numbers were down slightly. Some of the villagers on low incomes couldn't find the money for a ticket and chose not to attend. Unfortunately this had upset the finances slightly, so the event made a small loss. It was unanimously agreed to raise the parish precept slightly to pay for this - no-one would notice the tax rise, and the event was very successful.

Knewlab Village Council certainly moved with the times, and following new legislation, they had recruited a new equalities officer. Part of the new role would be to monitor diversity at the annual BBQ.

There seemed to be quite a lot of new staff at the parish council that year. Having got a low mark in a recent government inspection for environmental matters, they also recruited a Climate Change and Recycling officer, who carried out a review of the BBQ. Residents tried their best to sort out the various empty drinks bottles after the event, but often made mistakes, so it was agreed to purchase some special recycling bins to use at the event. It was also noted that although a blind eye had been turned in previous years, the recycling couldn't just be put out with normal domestic recycling, there would need to be a proper trade waste contract for the event, but it would only be a few pounds.

As this was the main event where village residents met up each year, it was also agreed to hold a small 'Doing your bit' environmental stall at the event, where residents could be told how to switch off electrical appliances at night, and how to reduce food miles. After extensive research by the Climate Change and Recycling officer, no carbon-free alternative to charcoal could be found, so to make the event carbon-neutral, it was agreed that a dozen trees would be planted in the rainforest each year to offset the emissions.

The costs were adding up, and this left the Council with a dilemma - most people in the village could easily afford the ticket price, but some couldn't, so it was agreed that there would be two different ticket prices - standard price and special price for those on benefits or low incomes. This added a bit to the administration of the ticket sales, so the Council appointed a part-time ticket administrator to process the ticket application forms, and calculate the means test. After doing the sums, the standard price tickets would now cost £15, with special tickets costing £1. Parish councillors were now putting a lot of their own time into organising the event, so it was agreed it was only right that they should receive free tickets.

That year was another great success - the weather was very kind again, and numbers held up well. It was a particular triumph that many people on low incomes attended, although parish councillors were surprised at some of those who decided not to attend due to the higher standard ticket price - knowing how large their houses were and the cars they drove.

It wasn't all plain sailing though. Food preparation volunteers who were overworked last year, and couldn't find time to go on the food safety refresher course decided not to help this year. The council had to bring in a catering company at the last minute to do all the food preparation. This meant there was again a slight loss, that was again charged to local taxpayers.

The report from the equalities officer also made uncomfortable reading. Equalities monitoring (now thankfully included on the ticket application form) had revealed that despite a small traveller community living at the far end of the village, none had attended the BBQ. A outreach project was setup to understand what had gone wrong, and make sure the next year's event was more representative. It was also noted the difficulty Mr Smith had getting on to the village green in his wheelchair - it needed two volunteers (who won't have been on a safe lifting course) to negotiate the kerb, so new dropped kerbs would need to be put in place. Fortunately the County Council issued grants for just this purpose, so once the 10 page application form was filled in, this work could be done without any cost to the parish council.

The equalities officer and the climate change and recycling officer both noted how much time they had been spending on the BBQ project, and it was agreed a significant part of their costs should be recharged to the BBQ cost centre.

Adding this to the increase in catering costs, the standard ticket prices for the following year would have needed to be significantly increased again. After much debate, it was decided that the fairest approach would be to introduce a super ticket that would need to be purchased by the 10% of villagers living in the largest houses. These would cost £100 each, but that was easily affordable, these people were very wealthy indeed - and many used to subsidise the event in previous years to the same extent when they just had a whip round. But above all, this approach was fair.

There were also attempts to make economies. It was initially agreed to reduce the size of the burgers by 5%, and only serve 3 sausages per person instead of 4. This news passed most people in the village by, but did cause a bit of a rumpus when Mr Spart in the workers cottages read the parish council minutes. A blog posting and a few tweets later, and trade unionists from miles around picketed the next parish council meeting, with placards ranging from 'Wheres the beef' and 'Not a sausage less' to 'Village life will collapse completely'. This plan was soon reversed, and everything was in place for another successful BBQ the following year.

Except the next BBQ was a disaster. It poured with rain, so ticket sales on the day were non-existent. But many people had already decided not to attend. Only 2 super-tickets were sold. Many of those who used to help with the catering didn't enjoy themselves as much now they weren't contributing their catering skills - and Catering Co food just wasn't as good as home cooked. And some people just thought the whole thing had become too bureaucratic, and wasn't fun any more. The result was a huge loss.

Recriminations were bitter. The leader of the parish council launched a savage attack in the Village Newsletter on the wealthy in the village - who could well afford to pay, but chose to avoid the event - for ruining the BBQ for everyone. The parish council was picketed for months by Mr Spart and his friends when they tried to make the equalities officer and climate change and recycling officer redundant. And with the parish council reserves drained completely, the parish precept was doubled. The BBQ didn't happen again - residents who became used to the parish council doing everything for them didn't want to volunteer again, and village life suffered. The children of Knewlab will be paying for the great BBQ fiasco for years to come...

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