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Swire Delivers Keynote Big Society Address to Preservation Trust Conference

The Rt Hon Hugo Swire MP, Minister of State for Northern Ireland, has delivered the Keynote Address to the 2011 UK Assocaiation of Preservation Trusts National Conference held in Belfast

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government


Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for inviting me to speak to you today and let me start off by welcoming you to Belfast and Northern Ireland especially those of you who have never been to visit us before.

And what a splendid venue to meet in.  

It is heartening to be in such a fine building that has been saved for posterity after featuring in the BBC Restoration programme a few years ago - a programme I followed closely as it featured Politimore House in my own constituency of East Devon.

I see from your programme that you have already had the chance to visit the old Moravian settlement in Gracehill with its wonderful Georgian architecture that has remained unchanged and which led to it becoming the first conservation area in Northern Ireland in 1975.

I was fortunate enough to be shown around the village and school in Gracehill in September and of course their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall visited the settlement only a few weeks ago.

Everyone remarks on how peaceful and quiet Gracehill is.  You can’t always say the same about Parliament Buildings in Stormont where the Northern Ireland Assembly sits and where you had your reception last night but I hope you enjoyed the grandeur of “the house on the hill” as it is often referred to.

Parliament Buildings which is considered the masterpiece of Sir Arnold Thornley, was a gift from the people of Great Britain to the people of Northern Ireland and the original plans included a great glass domed building for the legislature with two side buildings for the executive and the judiciary.  

But the stock market crash in the twenties led to a lack of money and so a much more modest building was built in the Greek classical style with a six columned frontage with each column representing one of the six counties of Northern Ireland.

Anyway, to camouflage it during World War II, the building’s Portland stone was covered with a supposedly removable “paint” made of bitumen and cow manure.

However, after the war, removing the paint proved an enormous difficulty as it had scarred the stonework and it took seven years to fully remove the paint, although the exterior façade never quite regained the original gleaming white colour for which it was renowned.

This afternoon you will go on a tour of Belfast and I hope you will get an opportunity to see the wonderful Victorian heritage of the city as well of some of the exciting new architecture in the Titanic Quarter and elsewhere.  

Look out for the Albert Memorial Clock with its statue of Prince Albert which Queen Victoria described as a most fitting monument to the memory of the Prince.  It was built on reclaimed land and leans 1.25 metres off the vertical and is the nearest thing we have to a leaning tower.  

Look out also for the Grand Opera House and opposite it the Crown Pub famous for its Victorian tiling and private snugs from which you can ring a bell to get served. It is one of only two pubs owned by the National Trust.  Pubs feature a lot in Belfast architecture (and life) and the oldest building in Belfast is reputed to be McHugh’s bar dating back to 1711.

I was delighted that the title of your conference is Inspiring Partnerships - Building the Big Society because a part of my ministerial portfolio is to take forward this Agenda in Northern Ireland.

So today I would like to set out the Government’s vision for the Big Society and concentrate on what organisations like you represented here today can do to benefit from it and, of course contribute to it,

What is the Big Society?

The Big Society is not new; it’s all about doing what we have done for centuries and what already works best - getting local people making local decisions that affect their local neighbourhood.

And you are all a perfect example of that - you have decided not to let buildings that are precious to your localities get shut down or bulldozed, be that the Gasworks in Carrickfergus in Co Antrim or the Water Mill in Pakenham in Suffolk you, as individuals and as organisations, decided to get involved and do something about it.

And the fact that there are so many of you here today suggests that there has been a lot of preservation going on!  I am also sure that you, like me, were delighted to see the National Trust break the four million member mark for the first time. I am glad to be a member of that great organisation and my wife and I would both recommend their rental cottages and indeed those of the Landmark Trust who are represented here today.

And I should like to add on a personal note that I consider the late Sir John Smith the founder of the Landmark Trust one of the heroes of the 20th Century.

So the Big Society is about putting more power into people’s hands - it is a massive transfer of power from Whitehall to local communities that has only just begun.

And there are three pillars to this agenda:  The first is decreasing the power of Whitehall and bringing decision making much closer to the people by giving local councils and neighbourhoods more power to take decisions and shape their area.

So planning reforms will replace the old top-down planning system with real power for neighbourhoods to decide the future of their area - and that should give preservation trusts like yourself more of a voice when it comes to keeping safe the buildings or follies that give your local neighbourhoods their particular character.

I need to say at this point that because of the devolution settlements in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, many of these measures will apply only to England but my hunch is that when they catch on in England, there will be a lot of pressure put on the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to follow suit.  

The second of these three pillars will be reforming and opening up public services: enabling charities, social enterprises, private companies and employee-owned co-operatives to compete to offer the community local high quality services in place of larger organisations.

This means that workers will be given a new right to form employee-owned co-operatives and bid to take over the services they deliver. Millions of public sector workers could become their own boss and deliver better services as a result.

And if groups can prove that they can deliver better services and meet all the proper requirements then the funding will be diverted to enable the group to deliver the service.  It’s as simple as that.

The Government will de-ringfence more than £1 billion of grants to local authorities by the end of this financial year with the aim of promoting greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups and all Local Authorities in England will be required to publish information on all spending over £500 locally, opening up a vast swathe of information about the way that money flows locally.

The Big Society challenges everyone to think and act differently. It challenges citizens to think about the personal and social consequences of their behaviour; it challenges communities to take ownership of an area and find ways to positively transform it; and it challenges the state to ask: “why can this not be done by citizens themselves, or voluntary, community and social enterprises?”

One particular measure that might be of interest to preservation trusts is a measure in the Localism Bill which is currently going through Parliament.  We have introduced a Right to give local community organisations a fairer chance to save assets which are important to community life.

While this could be the village shop or the last remaining pub in the village, it could also be the art deco cinema or a treasured Carnegie library worth preserving for future generations if they are also judged to further the social well being of the community.

This provision includes private as well as public assets.  The aim - and a not uncontroversial one is to give communities the ability to identify assets of community value and, when the owner decides to sell a listed asset, there will be a window to give local community groups more time to prepare to bid to buy them.

The third pillar of the Big Society is encouraging Social Action:

  • We were all horrified to see the recent riots across England and if ever there was a time to give teenagers a sense of belonging and purpose it is now.  
  • The National Citizens Service will help with that and I am in discussions with ministerial colleagues for a Northern Ireland version tailored to the different needs of the province.  
  • The scheme helps young people from different backgrounds and different communities mix and develop skills that are completed in a residential setting away from home.  
  • They complete tasks, which are personally challenging, typically in the form of an outdoor challenge experience, and focused on personal and social development
  • They also design a social action task in consultation with the local community that they return to help deliver in the community they have come from and they complete their National Citizens Service with a further period of 30 hours of social action on a part-time basis.

We are also funding the training of 5,000 Community Organisers across England who will have strong understanding of local needs and will catalyse social action by neighbourhood groups.

And of course volunteering - we want to encourage more volunteers because volunteering is the backbone of contributing to society.  

And of course we have to practice what we preach.  

All ministers in the Coalition government have pledged to give up a day to volunteer in the community.  I intend to lead a team of volunteers from my Department between now and Christmas but I am very much open to suggestions as to what we might do so if you have any thoughts please do send them to my office and let me know.

I have an army of weeders, sweepers, painters and cleaners on standby!

It was in the same spirit that Owen Paterson the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland raised over £61,700 this summer for The Royal Irish Regiment Benevolent Fund, The Midlands Centre for Spinal Injuries and the Mercy Corps in Mongolia.  He and his wife Rose spent their holidays riding across the Mongolian steppes in a 1,000km race called the Mongol Derby.  

The Big Society Bank

You asked me to speak in particular  about the Big Society Bank,  Well it’s no longer being called that - it has been renamed the Big Society Capital Group to avoid any confusion with it appearing to be a high street bank which it manifestly is not.

Big Society Capital will be comprised of three separate parts: the parent company will be named ‘The Big Society Trust’, with the operating company, Big Society Capital Ltd, as its subsidiary, and a separate entity, ‘The Big Society Foundation’, which will be capable of receiving charitable donations to support its work.

Big Society Capital will invest in social investment intermediary organisations across the UK but it will not make grants to individual organisations or charities.

The intermediary organisations will help bring together bodies that need capital, and bodies that have capital and want to invest it. Intermediaries in the social investment market include funds, financial institutions or other organisations that arrange financing for end-user social organisations.   

Existing intermediaries are organisations such as Charity Bank, the Key Project and London Rebuilding Society are others.  We hope that there will be more in due course.  

The difference that Big Society Capital will make is that organisations such as yours will gain access to capital at a more competitive rate than you would be able to secure from a high street bank.

Big Society Capital is being funded in two ways - £ 400m will come from Dormant Bank accounts and £200m from money, what we call Merlin money which the four main UK banks are contributing.  It has no shareholders and will act independently of government; it will act transparently and be self sufficient.

More importantly it will act like a wholesale bank and not invest in front line activities nor make grants.  Rather it will support social enterprise through intermediaries.  By operating like this it will not distort the market and undermine existing operators but it will offer very favourable terms.  

What the Government is doing in respect of Charity Reform?

I know from experience that many charities and small organisations like yourselves are seeing smaller donations inevitably as a result of the economic downturn so I wanted to conclude my comments by setting out what the Government’s policy is towards encouraging charitable giving. Many of you will have seen the Giving White paper which sets out our commitment to empower and encourage more people to get involved in charitable giving.

Firstly we intend to make it easier and more convenient for people to give to charity as part of their every day lives.  We want to weave the ability to donate to good causes seamlessly into the fabric of everyday life.

Technology, which is an increasing part of all our lives, can play an important role here in making it much much easier to give. The White Paper highlights a number of innovative schemes such as:

  • ATM giving which allows people to give at the touch of a button when using a cash machine
  • “Round the Pound” which allows the balance in rounding up at the till when paying for shopping in some large retailers to go to charity
  • The JustTextGiving scheme which allows spontaneous giving to charities of all sizes by mobile phone and is free to set up.  Each charity can get an individual number to receive donations by text.
  • There is also the phone app “DoSomeGood” which allows people to donate their time, either to gather information required by charities or to volunteer time to help.

Another initiative, to make it easier for those with higher disposable income to give, the Government has committed over £700,000 to help develop the Philanthropy UK service.  This service offers free and impartial advice to aspiring philanthropists and connects wealthy people with charities which need their support.

But we want to make giving to charity more compelling and make it the social norm. For those of us that already give to charity the Government wants to look at ways of increasing what we give and for those not yet giving we want to encourage them to do so.

The last Budget introduced Inheritance tax changes so that there will be a reduction in inheritance tax rates for those who leave 10% or more of their estate to charity.

Payroll giving is a great way to give to charity but in the UK payroll giving is only about 3% - many people are simply unaware of how easy it is to do and how cost effective it is for the recipient charity. We want to change that and raise the profile of payroll giving.  So we are sponsoring the National Payroll Giving Awards, which last year was won by Police Service of Northern Ireland.

So instead of thinking ‘why should I give’ we need people to think ‘how much should I give?’.

In this 24 hour society the most precious thing we have to offer is our time.  We all know great examples of individuals like yourselves who give significant amounts of their time to benefit their communities. There are also many examples of businesses backing volunteering and encouraging their staff to do likewise but we want to see more. We want people to see volunteering as the social norm and the responsible thing to do.  

One exciting initiative announced in the Giving White paper to encourage giving is the ‘Spice’ initiative which gives an opportunity to provide volunteers with a ‘thank you’ in the form of a voucher or a discount with local businesses for doing good work for the community. We are investing £400,000 to trial ‘Spice’ in England.

Finally we want to support those charitable organisations which provide services that benefit our communities. That is why we announced in the 2011 Budget a number of important tax incentives and cuts to red tape which will see the removal of paperwork for gift aid donations up to £5,000.

These are simple changes but ones which will make a huge difference especially to smaller charities like yourselves.

The great civic buildings in our nations cities; Glasgow, Birmingham, Liverpool, Belfast and others were built at a time of confidence. They demonstrate pride - the pride of the local community; pride in their heritage; pride in their industries; pride in their civic institutions and most important pride in their local communities. We want to re-ignite this pride and this confidence.

Clearly Central Government can give a lead but it cannot and indeed should not be expected to deliver on its own. It is to organisations such as yours to which we should look and I believe your role in delivering in this area is vital but has in the past largely gone unrecognised.

Ladies and gentlemen my time is up - I am happy to take questions and if I or my officials don’t know the answer we shall get back to you.

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today and I hope that the remainder of your conference and your stay in Northern Ireland is successful and enjoyable.

Published 14 October 2011