Big Society was thriving in Wick long before it became a political slogan

David Cameron – remember him? – talked a lot about the Big Society. Communities would come together and rebuild society from the ground up, the role of the State would diminish, and we’d see the dawning of a new, co-operative age, with ginger beer and currant buns for all.

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First published in The National, 25 October 2016

In practice, it fell flat. But there’s a town in Caithness that epitomises one part of the Big Society and has been doing so since long before Cameron started using the term. I’m talking about the Pulteneytown People’s Project in Wick. Back in 2003 and fed up with a lack of investment and opportunities in the town, some community-minded Wickers met in the South Primary School, scraped together a budget of £10,000 and 1.5 staff, and got to work. Fast-forward to the present day, and the PPP operates in a state-of-the-art Pulteney Centre, employs 55 staff, and has a turnover of over £750,000. This is truly a social enterprise, not a Tory excuse to cut the welfare state,

Got kids? The PPP has a crèche, a breakfast club, an after-school club and will even drop the bairns off for you. Need to brush up on your job skills? The Training Centre offers ILA courses and a weekly work club where you can get help with your CV. Mum a bit lonely? Bring her along to the Craft Club so she can make some pals while Dad potters over to the Men’s Shed, a healthier alternative to the pub.

Businesses can rent offices and meeting rooms, groups can use the main hall, and everything combines to make the PPP buzzing with activity on any given day. Most importantly, the PPP is sustainable and all profit goes back into the project. It’s run like a business, so every department has budgets and targets, and is overseen by the main office. This is a professional organisation, which is why it’s such a success. Of course, having a management team that isn’t above rushing down to the cafe to help in the kitchen probably helps. But that’s what struck me about the place, this tremendous sense of ownership in the project. This isn’t “just” a youth centre or “just” an office complex or “just” somewhere folk can go to get advice on their benefits or learn how to cook a decent meal. 

The people of Wick and the surrounding areas had to work hard to get the project going, and there’s a fierce pride in what’s been achieved. Wick isn’t a town that’s had it easy, which makes this all the more admirable.

Before we go on, I should declare a vested interest – I have an office in the PPP, giving me a base in the Highlands. Caithness is a good news story for Scotland, and it irks me to see the place often overlooked. Aye, it’s a beautiful area, but there’s more to it than dramatic scenery. It’s a hub of renewable energy, you can’t throw a pebble without hitting some kind of poet or artist, and there’s a kind of kinetic spirit that means folk just get on with things, like the Caithness Broch Project. 

It’s that potency that led to the formation of the PPP, drove it to success, and keeps the wheels in motion to this day.

As an MEP for Scotland, I know that there are small towns and areas all over the country where the traditional employers have closed or drastically downsized. 

But the wealth of Scotland is in her people. The 2014 Independence Referendum was more than a political event. It was a social coalition of fresh-faced neophytes and grizzled veterans alike, all inspired by the spirit of hope and change to build a better Scotland. How many of you are or know people who were completely uninterested in politics before? The IndyRef was greater than the sum of its parts. It was a lightning rod for unfocused energy and zeal that crackled through our society.

We may not have won in 2014 but the wheel spins and here we are in Brexit Britain with a Westminster class too busy squabbling amongst itself to govern. Let’s build Scotland from the ground up, starting with empowering our local communities to dream big. I’m all for a PPP-style project in every part of Scotland – why not? Bairns need looking after, older folk deserve somewhere they can go to socialise, communities need a focal point they can point at and say: “That’s ours”. In this very paper last week, Michelle Rodger wrote about social enterprises and the £1.7 billion they bring to the Scottish economy. Social enterprises make money, but instead of answering to shareholders, their role is to benefit the community.

One last thing. The Pulteney Centre sits on the street, with no metal shutters to come down at night. In the four years it’s been open, nobody has ever smashed a window or sprayed graffiti on the doors. Why would they? It’s theirs.