Many civic societies are thriving with active memberships and lively events programmes. Some own property and are financially secure. But there are some groups who may feel that they are struggling and have a declining or ageing membership. There may be few young people or 'ethnic minority' members. Why is this? Does it matter if the group is run mainly by oldies? What can be done apart from giving up and closing down?
Many community groups have a similar age profile and local political parties have withered greatly, indeed membership of political parties is less than 25% than it was 10 years. Interestingly, there are more members of the National Trust than of all political parties together. Some heritage group meetings seem to have many white-haired members. This may be inevitable as the demographics of the country gets older.
There are fashions in issues. Concern about the civic environment was especially strong 20 or 30 years ago, perhaps as a reaction to radical reconstruction in the 1960s and 70s. I'm in Friends of Earth; younger members in FoE don't seem to be as bothered about nuclear issues as my generation in the 1980s. They are into climate change now. This is fine: we must expect each generation to have different passions about issues that directly concern them.
Older people may care more about their towns and cities because they are more settled and they identify with an area. They have roots. Younger people are more mobile and they can't afford houses with mortgages. First generation immigrants are just establishing themselves in a difficult and sometimes hostile foreign country. They may not identify closely with a town and the older ones may have a self-myth of return to the 'mother country'.
Recent retirees have energy, skills, confidence and often sufficient time and money to take up civic work as a self-financing hobby. Oldies may be more committed and experienced with committee work. They're not raising families so they have more time.
The style of civic societies may be old-fashioned and cumbersome. Back in the 1980s and before, I remember our civic trust worrying about designing and obtaining headed notepaper (who types formal letters in the email age now?); a membership leaflet (in the age of the internet?); Charity Commission status (the Commission isn't interested in time-wasting tiddlers any more); minutes of meetings (has no one heard of laptops?) which are posted out to members (what, no email?); and attendance at meetings in the evening (have you seen the price of car parking? would you walk through streets of town centre drunks at night especially if you were a woman or Asian? And miss Corrie on the telly?). And for what: a boring committee meeting at night?
The content of meetings is more competitive now. It struck me recently that my local historical society achieves attendances of well over a hundred at its monthly talks. The Friends of the Harris Museum & Art Gallery in Preston can pull in about 150 for an evening event and I know that the Manchester Modernist Society has about 50 for its walks around central Manchester. Why? Because the events and meetings are fun and there may be nice nibbles and drinks.
Events may need to be more attractive and open to the public. Do you have a programme of town walks or jaunts elsewhere? Maybe your local NHS is keen to promote healthy walking? Our Society visited Liverpool One to get the 'feel' of a large shopping development scheme, like the promised Tithebarn in Preston. 'Benchmarking' is the management jargon for that. Exchange visits with other civic societies may be an idea. You can have a really good day on an exchange visit and they are useful to share experiences. No commitment walks and events can recruit new members. Joint-events can work with other civic societies to.
Walks don't have to be about the traditional topics. The Manchester Modernists like 1960s tower blocks and I once went on a coach tour of motorway service stations. On a Twentieth Century Society walk in Blackburn we had a look at the 1960s market hall's roof and the 1970s health centre. Events must appeal to younger people; the history of rock and pop music is often attractive.
A shortage of traditional officers may be a liberation and an opportunity. We live in the age of the web, Facebook, Bebo, blogs, texts and Twitter. We may not need meetings so often with officers, minutes and all that 'stuff'. That cuts down the need for financing room hires, secretary's expenses and so on. The Manchester Modernists operate through Facebook and their web site. They just don't meet; they don't need to. The best local campaign (to stop the development of the lower Ribble floodplain and the construction of a river barrage) was the Save the Ribble blog at http://save-the-ribble.blogspot.com
. This was very successful. It stopped the barrage plans (we hope) and led to the creation of a countryside park in South Ribble. An email alert to a recent blog can bring about 50 people out to an action easily.
The new Louder campaigning website www.louder.org.uk
enables campaign groups to establish a web presence for their work and it links to e-petition, You-Tube and social networking sites. Cool stuff!
Lazy or busy journalists rely heavily on instant sound bite phone quotes and web information. A quickie interview on the phone at 9am becomes a post on the web by the afternoon and a story in the newspaper by next day. Not a piece of paper has moved to create the story and it's then on the web for everyone in the world to read and for web forum bloggers to comment on. A civic society can have a virtual campaigning existence. Bloggers do get read especially if they're good for a quote and are well informed.
We may be in the age of a new type of decentralised organisation: one that is a loose flexible network, based on digital links, rather than solid institutions. The military call it assymetric warfare and it can be very effective. We're involved in a campaign to prevent the ruinous development of Winckley Square in Preston, a charming but neglected Georgian square. We've had thousands of planning objection postcards run off and distributed through a network of sympathisers and related organisations. Well over a 1000 cards have been received by the planning office but we don't have 1000 members. The network, based mainly on email and contacts, was activated with only a few small informal meetings. I know that if necessary we could assemble a crowd of demonstrators for direct actionor a flash-mob using Facebook, Twitter and texts. Save Preston Bus Station has about a 1000 Facebook fans.
Like other towns we have a sizeable Asian community in Preston. We don't have any members but we do have amiable contacts with local Islamic and Hindu key people. The awards certificates of merit are good for developing contacts when we award schemes developed by local Asian families and companies. Is there a striking new mosque or temple; perhaps they deserve an award or two? People like to be praised and feted especially if their pictures and details are published locally.
We've been on visits to a temple and mosques. They are fun and the hospitality is always gracious and welcoming. Maybe your civic society could arrange a visit to a mosque during Heritage Open Days? Perhaps it might be an idea to suggest this and then visit the mosque to discuss the idea? In Preston the second generation Asians are often astute and energetic developers. There is sometimes also some barely disguised racist resistance to their plans. We try to be fair to all developers and we have written in support of schemes being developed by local families, including a multi-millionaire who is regarded locally as a pantomime villain. Communities which may feel threatened may respond to better support and positive approaches.
My main point is 'don't give up': you may be surprised what you can still do with limited resources, especially in the age of the internet. Oldie indignation is a great fuel for action. Keep calm and carry on. Aidan Turner-Bishop
Preston and South Ribble Civic Trust