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Going big on the idea of a 'big society'

14 July 10 16:12 GMT

By Stephen Smith

Do you ever feel that you want to give something back to society? To help others? I know I do.

After a privileged journalistic career in which I have been lucky enough to rub shoulders with everyone from John Selwyn Gummer to Lionel Blair, I would have to be some kind of me-me-me freak if I didn't!

So the government's big idea of a 'big society' struck a chord with me.

Like those senior BBC managers who selflessly announced recently that they were going to do 11 months' work for just 12 months' pay [Note to subs - is this right?], I felt that I had to do my bit.

I would investigate whether volunteering could possibly take up the slack left by a shrinking public sector, and even have a bash myself.

That is why a bright summer morning found me winding through the bee-loud Sussex countryside on the slow train to Hastings.

There was nothing whimsical about my transport choice, there is only a slow train to Hastings. That is one of the reasons why Newsnight picked it as the place where we should put all the fine talk of a 'big society' to the test.

For somewhere so close to London and the giant engine of its economy, Hastings is comparatively isolated. It is no further from the capital than Brighton, but the trains take twice as long to get there.

The railway tunnels need an expensive upgrade, I am told, but they are unlikely to see one while money is so tight.

Struggling economy

The private sector in Hastings is not the runaway success that locals might like. In fact, the only place with a lower average wage is Hull, which is similarly isolated.

This may help to explain why as many as one in four are economically inactive. Another reason is that a fifth of the population are registered as permanently sick or disabled, well above the national average.

Until now, the employment burden in these parts has been shouldered by the public sector, which accounts for more than 42 per cent of jobs. But this is the very part of the economy which will feel the immediate effects of spending cuts.

Generation game

So if ministers' much advertised solution of the "third sector" (volunteers to you and me) is going to work anywhere, it needs to work in a place like Hastings.

Fortunately for the town, a number of noble and even inspiring schemes are underway.

I found one of them on the seafront, within the looming hulk of the former Queen's Hotel.

The Queen's could almost be a scuttled Cunarder which has come to rest on the prom. Generations of Hastings couples once trod the parquet of its elegant ballroom.

This palais de danse is still frequented by the young men and women of the town, except that now they use it as a drop-in centre - a place to get advice on sexual health, or to do their washing, or get a freshly-cooked meal for their kids.

Of course, this is just the kind of thing to upset the proverbial "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells", who only lives a stone's throw from Hastings - make that a furled Telegraph's throw.

Couldn't these young people damn well get off their backsides and do a decent day's work, they might ask?

"If anyone here could go out and get a good job, they'd be out there doing it," says the project's organiser, Andrew Batsford. "No one comes here for fun."

Sixty per cent of the young people who call in at the centre are products of the care system. Xtrax, as the scheme is named, is supported by charitable donations and many of the staff are volunteers.

But it is facing a crisis over rent. It is responsible for the lease of great swathes of the old hotel, which it was sub-letting to the local primary health care trust, among others.

But now the tenants have fled, blaming spending cuts, and Batsford says his waking hours are now spent trying to find new ones to replace them.

'Journalist does honest day's work shock'

I was not sure I had it in me to do what Batsford does, but just as I was wrestling with this dilemma, the matter was taken out of my hands by no less a figure than Jeremy Birch, leader of Hastings Council.

"What kind of qualifications do you have?" he asked me.

"Well, I'm a journalist."

"That narrows it down," said Birch.

I explained that Newsnight wanted to get involved in something civic, something sharing. Above all, something where we could not do lasting damage.

Councillor Birch came up with a solution, in a roundabout way. To find out exactly what it is, you will have to join us down on the wave-licked Hastings strand tonight.

But to give you some idea, calling our new venture one of the glories of the Sussex riviera does not do it justice.

Watch the first film in Newsnight's Big Society series on Wednesday 14 July 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

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