Civic Trust’s Closure By Tony Burton
News of the Civic Trust’s closure in April 2009 came as a shock to civic societies across the country. A lot of work has been going on to fill the gap with something better, as Tony Burton from the Civic Society Initiative explains.
“Nowhere should be without its civic society and no-one should be without the voice you can provide.”
This was the message from the Prince of Wales to the Civic Societies National Convention in October and it resonated with the delegates from civic societies from every part of the country. Every civic society is part of something bigger. Every local issue is a national issue. Every local voice can be part of a national voice. Working together the civic society movement is one of the country’s unsung treasures and with over 1,000 local organisations and 250,000 members it is a force to be reckoned with.
The loss of the Civic Trust has left civic societies without a champion in the corridors of power and without the individual guidance and advice that can help each society flourish. With generous support from other national organisations like the National Trust and contributions from over 135 civic societies, the Civic Society Initiative was set up in June to help find a way forward. We have been debating and discussing what might happen and how it might be funded in public meetings, online debates and a major survey. In three months we involved over 800 societies and had face to face discussions with nearly 400 people. The conclusions were presented in a special report - Own the future - to the October convention which was the first gathering of civic societies for over 30 years.
It is clear that the country needs effective and influential civic societies now more than ever before. The effects of insensitive development, weak land use and transport planning and a lack of regard for heritage and the identity and character of the villages, towns, cities and neighbourhoods of England is diminishing them and all our lives. People also want more of a say but find themselves left out in the cold. The number of people who think they can influence local decisions has fallen from 44% to 39% in the last eight years. That is why local places need powerful champions to defend them, to celebrate their history and to shape their future.
It is also clear that civic societies need each other. Together we’re stronger is truism but no less true for that. The forces that shape your local area depend as much on national priorities, policy and funding as they do on local decisions. Working together we can reach places in the corridors of power that local action will never reach.
Civic societies are also looking for support and advice on how best to make a difference locally and to strengthen themselves with new volunteers and sources of funding. This includes support for clustering together more locally than the remote Government regions in some areas. There are already moves to have three clusters in the South East and cluster civic societies in Merseyside and around Wiltshire, Bath, Bristol and Gloucestershire. We know others are looking to work together more at a county level or around the potential of new “city-regions”.
As a result, there is an overwhelming call for a small new national body to lobby and campaign where it matters, raise the profile of the movement and provide civic societies with support and advice. It is also clear that people want this new body to be independent and to be focused on meeting the needs of civic societies. The Civic Trust closed because it became remote and dependent on Government funding which was switched elsewhere. The same cannot happen again. Each civic society will be asked to pay something like £2 or £3 per member to join and will have to decide where to raise these funds. We accept that this will be a challenge for a lot of societies. There are a number who have low membership rates. We recognise this and that there may be a need for a transition period. On the other hand some societies have already put up their membership fees in anticipation of the changes being introduced. Others recognise that they may not be valuing themselves and what they do by charging such low fees. We are interested in hearing your ideas about how we can fund the new body. What we do know is that we can’t expect to find support from elsewhere if we are to be independent. It will have strings attached and is in short supply.
The good news is that every member of civic societies which join will receive the offer of a free day access pass to any National Trust property. This is worth up to £14 and if you are already a member then you can use it to take a friend or relative who isn’t, so everyone can enjoy a good day out.
In a small way we hope the Civic Society Initiative has begun to give a taste of the benefits which could come - providing a website, two information bulletins, raising the media profile, securing the support of celebrities, building partnerships with nationally important organisations like English Heritage and the National Trust, helping civic societies get together, securing funding, launching the Street Pride campaign against street clutter, and lobbying on key issues such as the review of planning policy on the historic environment.
The wheels to set up the new national body are in motion. We hope to launch in April. By joining in your local voice will be stronger and you will be helping make every part of England a better place to live.