Reality of the Big Society dawns on Liverpool

Jonathan Brown visits one of the pilot areas for Cameron's flagship idea – and is met by bemusement and trepidation
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Indy Politics

Day one of David Cameron's Big Society and the rain is bucketing down monsoon-style on Liverpool's waterfront. Though the handful of bedraggled tourists taking in the views of post-industrial Birkenhead or waiting to take photographs of the famous ferry as it crosses the grey Mersey might not know it, they are in a place that is soon to be in the vanguard of a revolution in the British way of life.

It was here, a city which, according to the Liverpool Poverty Commission, can count 42 per cent of its residents as "income-deprived" and where nearly four out of ten children live in households blighted by unemployment, that the Prime Minister came this week to launch what he described as his passionate goal for bringing something akin to a social revolution.

Beneath Mr Cameron's soaring rhetoric is a pilot scheme in which volunteers from all over the city are to be deployed to extend the opening hours of the city's museums in a project being championed by Brookside creator turned Liverpool cultural guru and chairman of National Museum Liverpool (NML), Phil Redmond. But, just 24 hours into this brave new world, trouble is brewing.

Staff at the city's museums and galleries, which include the Walker Art Gallery, the International Slavery Museum and, presumably, the new £72m Museum of Liverpool due to open in 2011, are already bracing themselves for cuts of up to 30 per cent.

Yesterday, NML director Dr David Fleming sent round an email "clarifying" comments he had made following the launch and seeking to reassure employees that their jobs were safe.

There was dismay among a 1,700-strong former volunteer group, Friends of National Museum Liverpool, which said it had been forced to disband two years ago after falling out with Dr Fleming and replaced by what they claim is a more compliant organisation. Union chiefs warned of a return to the Victorian age and claimed the Big Society was merely window dressing for job losses and spending cuts.

At the Merseyside Maritime Museum yesterday was tour guide Gareth Middlehurst, 25, a volunteer who works on the Zebu brigantine, the former flagship of Operation Raleigh which is moored on the Mersey. "If people have a passion for something, they will do it. But even we find that we need a base of twice as many people as you think to get everything done. Most have full-time jobs and will help if they can, but whether you will get people to sit in an art gallery all day for nothing is another matter," he said.

Previous experience of volunteering alongside young people with entrenched problems had not gone smoothly, he said. "There was so much going missing we had to get rid of them. We are not social workers so we decided to put an end to it," he added.

Workers in the museum quarter yesterday were also downbeat at the prospect of working with unpaid colleagues. One member of staff said: "They are not going to replace people doing the job day in, day out. You can't just replace the depth of knowledge you build up doing that." Another worker said her short-term contract was unlikely to be renewed when it finished next spring. "I am one of those people who will most likely be replaced by a volunteer. We have already been told to expect 30 per cent cuts and there is a total freeze on recruitment, so when we heard this there was mixture of disbelief and fatalism," she said.

Mr Redmond, the man who has become the public face of Liverpool's Big Society pledge, had expected to be on the receiving end of sniping in a city that with the exception of Everton FC despises all things blue. But he is passionate in the belief that culture can help transform the lives of the city's dispossessed and pointed to the numbers of visitors to galleries and museums more than trebling in the last decade.

Though he admitted the name of the project – The Big Society – was "naff" he urged people to give it a chance. The former City of Culture chief said he had been contacted by No 10 after appearing on a political television chat-show. He said he thought it was important that Liverpool, with its deep-rooted inner-city problems, would be included in the pilot along with the other areas – leafy Windsor and Maidenhead and Sutton and Cheam, and the rural Eden Valley in Cumbria.

He denied that he was rounding up a modern-day version of the Peace Corps for the city and that he was in the business of helping pave the way for cuts. "We have a fantastic model here already in existence in the current [museums] volunteer scheme. Why can't that be used to extend our public service? Why can't we find ways of helping people who want to make a contribution?" he said.

But he warned that giving volunteers the "badge of authority" to do the things they wished outside the control of the politicians could have terrible consequences. "I have made the point to Government directly. Once you have unleashed this idea, it is going to be very hard to put the genie back in the bottle," he added.

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