Craig Dearden-Phillips: Country fair tragedy reminds us of big society's burden of responsibility

The death caused by a runaway horse and carriage reminds us that there are advantages in some services being provided by a reliable public sector, says our columnnist

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

On 19 June, I was at a country fair in a park in Suffolk. At 4.30pm, a horse took fright and bolted with an empty carriage, running full-pelt into a crowd. One person died and eight others were seriously injured. Myself and my little kids missed it all by an hour. A truly horrendous event.

The Nowton Park Country Fair was run by St Edmundsbury Borough Council, which also runs the park. I say this because I felt glad the state was there to deal with this. Yes, it is up to the council to deal properly with the aftermath, to oversee the inquiry and, possibly, to pay out compensation. Imagine if this park had been handed over to a half-ready community group with no real experience in event management.

I have been one of the people hammering away for this park to be given to the community to operate as a charity or social enterprise. I am now not so sure that this was the right idea. In truth, we're not ready.

Let's imagine things had gone my way and the park was now run by a social enterprise, of which I was a trustee. It is quite possible that I would have been sent to face the media or, harder still, a grieving relative. Alternatively, I could have spent the next month of my working life mired in dealings with the Health and Safety Executive.

But I won't be. A man called John at the council is doing all of this. And I am really grateful that John is there to deal with all of this properly, not me. Obviously, these incidents are rare - they can't be used to justify the retention of control of everything by the state. But they put up a flag upon which is written "be careful what you wish for".

Few in Whitehall will have heard about the runaway horse in Bury St Edmunds, but the debate about the big society rumbles on. Tories such as Steve Hilton, the Prime Minister's director of strategy, want to bring the big society to life by making it the main thrust of the forthcoming white paper on public service reform.

He wants to see more mutuals, community groups and charities running public services, including parks and playgrounds. Meanwhile, other Tories, many of them outside David Cameron's immediate circle, want a stronger, free-market flavour. Hello Capita, Serco, payment by results and the rest.

Sitting behind the free marketers' view is the idea that the big society can't really be counted on to deliver savings or improvements in public services, a view shared by the trade unions and many in the voluntary sector. Where the right wing of the Tory party differs is in its belief that the private sector can do it better.

As the third sector, we will soon have to decide where to place our support: a vision of public sector reform that puts us at the heart of things, or one that puts the private sector clearly in the driving seat.

Despite the tragedy of the past weekend and it salutary lessons, I know where I am putting my money.

Contact Craig at craigdeardenphillips.com

Craig Dearden-Phillips is chief executive of Stepping Out and a Liberal Democrat councillor in Suffolk

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