Great Yarmouth proud to be Big Society leader

Delegates from all over Norfolk packed Great Yarmouth Town Hall today to hear town leaders trumpet the resort as a leader in delivering the government's Big Society vision of community action and self-help.

The seminar - Big Society in action: Yarmouth leading the way - was billed as a celebration of the town's long-standing achievements and a forum for discussing ways of further improving partnership working.

But the evangelical enthusiasm of the keynote speakers, Sarah Benioff, a senior civil servant involved in developing the Government's Big Society programme, and Brandon Lewis, Yarmouth's Tory MP, was tempered by pointed questions about impending funding cuts.

The borough council's Labour leader Mick Castle cast doubt over whether the coalition government would give enough financial back-up to community projects, pointing out its early decision to abolish the East of England Development Agency which had pumped so much money into the town.

Echoing his concerns, the representative of an older person's group raised the point that 'people give their time but you still need funding to make it happen'.

And a housing group delegate warned that some organisations were already threatened by cuts and there was a risk of losing them before the potential of the Big Society vision could be realised.

Opening the seminar, council leader Barry Coleman said: 'We like to think that not only are we the birthplace of Sir James Paget, Anna Sewell and Hannah Spearitt, but that the Big Society first drew breath here also.

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'Everywhere you look in the borough there are examples of positive community action and self help: young people planning, fund-raising, designing and project managing their own skate-park, tireless volunteers making Yarmouth Bloom each year, local businesses sponsoring and organising the Maritme Festival, residents restoring historic buildings, cleaning streets and managing their neighbourhoods - the list is endless.'

Setting the context, council managing-director Richard Packham said the town had been at the vanguard of developing local strategic partnerships, and its success at applying for funding had delivered countless improvements including a new seafront and the Time and Tide museum.

The Authority's executive director Jane Ratcliffe outlined the way funding streams such as the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund and Cohesion funding had allowed the setting up of effective neighbourhood management programmes which had seen a reduction in crime and anti-social behaviour.

However, she acknowledged the challenges ahead posed by public sector cuts of up to 40pc and the fact that many funding streams ran out next year.

Ms Benioff, a deputy director at the Office for Civil Society, defined the Big Society as 'an approach that sees the government give power to people to solve problems closer to where they live'.

Acknowledging the tough economic climate, she said there would still be resources available for communities, highlighting the planned Big Society bank which would use funds from dormant bank accounts.

Mr Lewis said Yarmouth was at the vanguard of Big Society and said there was numerous examples of 'organisations, communities and individuals getting involved to make our society better'.

Other speakers included Andrew Forrest, chief executive of Yarmouth Community Trust, who told how a consortium of 17 voluntary groups had come together to deliver pre-employment services, helping 70 people back into work in just a year. In the afternoon, neighbourhood manager Holly Notcutt led a seminar describing how a modest grant had led to a new community-run youthclub, the Den, being established in Southtown, leading to a noticeable decline in anti-social behaviour.