Civic societies and amenity groups prepare for a new future

The sudden demise of the Civic Trust earlier this year brought a quick response from a number of organisations. English Heritage, for example, came to the rescue and saved the organisation of Open Heritage Days, whilst others came together to establish the 'Civic Society Initiative' (CSI), which is being led by Tony Burton*. Those involved included the North of England Civic Trust, National Trust, Campaign to Protect Rural England, Royal Institute of British Architects, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, English Heritage and countless volunteers.

All agreed that the civic society movement is one of the most important community networks in the United Kingdom today and, with over a thousand local civic and amenity societies with 250,000 plus members, the need for a new national body was imperative. They immediately began a national consultation exercise, preparing discussion papers and establishing an online forum. Now they have moved onto the next stage. At the CSI's 'Civic Societies National Convention' in Blackpool on 16 October 2009, a report, Own the future, reported on five key issues which CSI believes need to be addressed before a new national organisation can be created, and on which they carried out a national consultation during the summer. These are:

  1. Whether the principles of the movement (collective, networked, independent, federal) and the kind of new national body needed (campaigning, responsive, light footed, grassroots) are sound.
  2. What the priorities of the new national body should be. Is it representing the movement, supporting societies and helping societies network together?
  3. How civic societies can best network and share experience ― including the proposal to build this around clusters of civic societies and thematic issues, rather than Government regions.
  4. Defining the common thread uniting the civic society movement ― founded on the importance of place, pride, identity and community.
  5. The balance between securing independence for the movement and funding it through contributions from individual civic societies on a per capita membership basis.

Own the future also provided a summary of the consultation feedback. The main points were: that the principles proposed for the movement and for the new national body are very widely supported; that there is near universal support for a new national body for the civic movement; there are different views about the priorities for the new national body, but the emphasis is on its role in representing the movement through campaigning, lobbying and profile raising.

The report says 'The proposals for more fluid arrangements for civic societies getting together are widely supported and stimulating a number of fresh ideas and initiatives'. Whilst regional arrangements are supported in some areas, a majority of respondents support local clusters and more flexibility. There is also real interest in networks of civic societies working around different topics of interest and that arrangements for civic societies working together should respond to the demands expressed by civic societies and not be centrally managed or prescribed.

The proposals to base the common thread of the civic movement on place, pride, identity and community has near universal support, with respondents keen to define what makes the movement distinctive. There are divergent views on the proposed funding arrangements but a majority support the principle of a per capita levy. It is widely recognised that the shift towards civic societies funding the new arrangements and securing their independence is both essential and difficult to achieve. Many respondents also want the structure and governance of the new national body to reflect federal and grassroots principles.

Reading the CSI reports and looking at the replies it received to its questionnaire, I was surprised that 'heritage' and 'history' were never listed as interests or topics by those answering the questionnaire. There were five sets of questions asked by CSI, which attracted between 425 and 447 respondents. Another surprise was that only 242 (55%) of 447 replies ranked conservation areas as one of 'the most important things civic societies currently do'. The fact that they were still second after dealing with planning applications (85%) and ahead of 'lectures and public events' (49%) did not detract from my surprise. In answer to the question 'What do civic societies currently do?', 356 (84%) mentioned conservation areas, which still put them second behind planning applications (97%). Good questionnaires are designed to tease out confused views on issues and, with conservation areas, CSI seems to have found one.

When it came to 'new activities', respondents ranked 'work with local schools' first (27%) and 'work with local business' second (20%). What this section probably reveals is just how diverse existing societies and groups are, all with their own priorities and interests. The lowest scoring topics when it came to new activities respondents wanted to see were: planning applications (1%); open access days (4%) and books and newsletters (both 5%) ― which suggests that these are things almost everyone does already.

One other thing which struck me when looking at the questionnaires was that only 6 and 2 of the respondents were from Wales and Scotland respectively. This suggests to me, as with local history, we English are finding it hard to stop thinking of the United Kingdom as a whole, even after devolution has changed the relationship between England and the other countries which make up the British Isles.

The latest round of consultation is asking for views on the following matters: the legal and charitable purpose of the new organisation; the size and composition of the governing body and how it should be elected; the role of civic societies and of other partner organisations in the new arrangements and who can be a member of the new national body?

Tony Burton and his colleagues also want to hear from interested individuals and organisations on how best to involve civic societies and volunteers in the regular flow of ideas and issues around the movement. They believe informal relationships are likely to be key to this, as well as regular involvement in meetings of topic networks and clusters of civic societies. Is there a need for more ― such as a national forum? Would people attend and is it a priority for a movement with limited resources?

What do you think? Email your views to by 15 January 2010, but they would like you to post your ideas and suggestions to the online discussion forum first.

Note: *Tony Burton has over 20 years of experience in the field of community action, land use planning and environmental and heritage politics. He moved from his role as the National Trust’s Director of Strategy and External Affairs to lead the Civic Society Initiative. Prior to working for the National Trust, Tony spent 13 years at the Council for the Protection of Rural England. He was also a founder trustee of Heritage Link ― the voluntary sector networking organisation for heritage groups ― and chaired its environmental equivalent Wildlife and Countryside Link. He was a member of Lord Rogers' Urban Task Force and has been an advisor to ministers on issues as diverse as urban renaissance and hedgerow protection.

For more information contact Civic Society Initiative, Unit 101, The Tea Factory, 82 Wood Street, Liverpool L1 4DQ, tel: 0151 708 9920, email:,

11 December 2009

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