What happens when 750 children are let loose onto a rugby pitch while the adults stand by and watch them get on with it? Unbridled chaos is the inevitable conclusion although in reality nothing could be further from the truth. The 750 special needs youngsters I recently encountered at The Army Rugby ground in Aldershot, were anything but disorderly. They were lively, friendly and full of incessant chatter, often driving the grown ups to near distraction with their unstoppable outpouring of energy. No one could begrudge them their joy since it was a day dedicated to fun, with all the entertainments laid on by the local Rotary Clubs. And among the day’s highlights? The Mayor of Surrey Heath running a partial lap of honour around the pitch, after scoring two goals against a group of football loving seven-year-olds, in what could only be described as a rather one-sided contest. He insists that both goals were from 20 metres out in the style of Steve Gerrard.
Events like this clearly illustrate how community groups are at their supreme best when everyone works together. But they’re also a pointer to a much bigger phenomenon that has been largely under-discussed in the national media. Recently I’ve come away with the growing conviction that in the current climate of fiscal belt-tightening and dire warnings of economic hardship, voluntary organisations will find themselves assuming a much greater social welfare role. This probably seems all the more extraordinary when applied to well-heeled, commuter territory like Surrey Heath. But even affluent boroughs have zones of poverty and Surrey Heath is no exception. How else does one explain the presence of the Camberley Community Store, which provides household goods and furniture to families or individuals needing emergency accommodation? The shelves and floor space are heaving with stock and will likely stay that way as long as there’s no let up in-house repossessions, family dislocations and rising unemployment.
There’s no suggestion that the voluntary sector is being consciously groomed for taking over some of the key welfare roles traditionally performed by local authorities. But there’s a growing awareness that times are changing and that old certainties are on their way out. The likely scenario is that many organisations will have to merge if they’re to cope with the increasing demands on their services, and if they’re to stand any chance of successfully accessing whatever money is available in the government kitty.
Maybe it’s another step towards the so-called “Big Society”, of which much has been written but not necessarily in a way that’s understandable. Yet regardless of how it’s interpreted, voluntary and community groups will have a heavier workload to look forward to, along with difficult choices as to how they’ll re-position themselves to meet their ballooning responsibilities in an age of cuts and austerity. “We’re all in this together” is the message from Westminster, although it’s anybody’s guess as to who will come out of it alive. At least the 750 youngsters can look forward to another fun day out in 2011, even if for the rest of us there might not be that much to smile about.