Norwich volunteers ready for Big Society project

Norfolk is at the forefront of Prime Minister David Cameron's Big Society plan to empower communities to take on roles from the government.

The county's voluntary youth organisations are already tackling problems caused by youth unemployment and deprivation, which cause teens to become disconnected from their communities.

And 500 of Norfolk's 16-year-olds will be among the first 11,000 from across the country participating in the government's flagship National Citizens Service (NCS) encouraging youngsters to play a greater role in their communities.

The NCS formed part of the Tory's manifesto for the May 2010 general election and was set up following the formation of the coalition government as a summer programme for 16-year-olds, involving training away from home and at home.

The voluntary scheme is being delivered by independent charities, social enterprises and businesses and is aiming to grow annually until 600,000 16-year-olds have done citizenship service.

The teenagers, from the Norwich City Community Sports Foundation, will be doing eight weeks training in July, including two weeks away from home and a weeks military training, to help them develop the skills and attitude to get involved in the community and become responsible citizens.

The Department of Education has awarded the foundation a �572,537 grant to pay for the volunteer programme.

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The aim is to get youngsters with the chosen 12 groups to leave a legacy for their communities, whether by improving the local environment, laying the foundations for local infrastructure or collaborating on a cultural event.

Paul Oginsky, an official government adviser with the National Citizens Service (NCS), revealed Norfolk's involvement with the scheme at a Momentum Voluntary Sector Forum for Norfolk at Abbey Conference Centre in Bracondale, Lakenham.

Figures show Norwich is the most deprived city in the eastern region and has the highest rate of youth unemployment in the country at 30.1pc and the citizenship service aims to tackle this problem.

Mr Oginsky said: 'The citizenship service is a real opportunity and flagship of the Big Society. Norfolk is one of 12 areas we have put as a pilot for the scheme. We are at the front of the flagship of the strategy for the country.

'There are 11,000 people taking part in this programme. Every young person can take it at the age of 16 and just over 500 of those were from this area.

'Over 250 groups applied to take part, but only 12 were chosen and the Norfolk group was one of them.'

The Liverpudlian described how he left school with no qualifications, but still went on to play a significant role in his community through the young people's charity Weston Spirit which he helped start with Falklands War hero Simon Weston, who was badly burned during the conflict.

'I truly believe that young people are fantastic. If you can connect with them they are amazing,' he added.

A number of speakers from voluntary organisations spoke about the voluntary sector and the challenges facing it, including Dan Mobbs, chief executive of Mancroft Advice Project, a support service for children aged 11-25 in Norwich.

A panel of five experts fielded questions from the voluntary sector representatives present.

They raised concerns about the speed with which the Big Society and NCS projects were being implemented, saying they had not heard anything about it and cutbacks in Norfolk County Council's children's services, which is set to lose 14pc of its budget.

They feared they would not have funding for professional expertise to help them take on roles formerly performed by the council's social services team.

However, Mr Oginsky said a Big Society Bank would be set up to fund projects.

Graeme Stewart, service manager with the Matthew Project, a drug and alcohol support service for under-18s, said after the meeting he was concerned about how voluntary organisations could form partnerships to deliver the Big Society in a timely manner.

However, he said: 'I think the citizenship service has the power to be transformational for young people and to change their perspective on society.'

Simon O'Leary, development manager for Voluntary Norfolk and Great Yarmouth, said the voluntary sector was well placed to take on government roles.

He said: 'Definitely, we have always said we have always been best placed to work with our local neighbourhoods. We are up for working in partnership with the elements of the council's youth services that remain.'

But he believed the Big Society was already in action and cited his organisation's involvement in helping to set up Peggotty Road community centre in Yarmouth as an example of this.