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I spent my Monday morning this week lodged between the celebrity heads of Jenny Agutter and Michael Portillo, banner aloft. Not the usual start to the week then, but rather a celebration of the launch of this year’s Coffeehouse Challenge (CHC).

I spent my Monday morning this week lodged between the celebrity heads of Jenny Agutter and Michael Portillo, banner aloft. Not the usual start to the week then, but rather a celebration of the launch of this year’s Coffeehouse Challenge (CHC).

The CHC is a great opportunity for Fellows to get involved in the work of the RSA, their local community and simply to meet other Fellows over a cup of coffee at their local Starbucks. But amongst the conviviality lies the serious question I touched on last week: how can we close the social aspiration gap – that is, the gulf between the society most of us want to live in and the society we are yet willing to create?

The overwhelming majority of people want a country that is peaceful and tolerant, a pleasant and sustainable environment, citizens treated fairly (which is not always the same as equally), a lively civic and cultural life and - as well as financial security - a better quality of life for people of all ages. Politicians may disagree about the policies needed to deliver this vision, but surely no one seriously thinks that such a society can be built without the efforts of people themselves.

This is so obvious it sounds almost childish to state; like an election speech for a year six school prefect. But if it is so obvious why are we so far from either living like this ourselves or organising society so that everyone can? With the CHC, the RSA in partnership with Starbucks and T-Mobile provide the space to make a start. CHC meetings start from identifying issues of local concern and then move on to develop and act on solutions.

In preparation for this year we received the findings of a specially commissioned opinion poll. The poll confirmed the aspiration gap revealing that on issues people most care about - crime, health, anti-social behaviour - they felt powerless to act. Two thirds recognised the need for local action to tackle these issues but less than a third was actually engaged in community groups or activities. The findings on concern about climate change were particularly intriguing. While it figured pretty low on people’s list of important local issues (only 15% thought it a significant problem) it was easily the highest on the list of issues people thought they could make a difference to. The lesson here is that, while people know they should have more efficient cars or energy saving light bulbs, they have no similar way of relating their own actions to other issues they are more immediately concerned about. The question is: can we develop realistic, attractive and effective ways for people to tackle crime, disorder, community tension, poor health or low aspirations?

The CHC takes a small step towards closing the social aspiration gap and I hope Fellows will grab the opportunity once again this year to get involved and make a difference in their community. All the details are available on the Coffeehouse Challenge website at www.coffeehousechallenge.org.

But real progress will take more profound changes in the way we think about politics, about social action and about the way we organise public services. Politicians from David Cameron to David Miliband are talking more about this ‘pro-social’ agenda but they need to show they understand the implications for the way politics and government themselves operate. Preaching simply won’t work; while 47% of people told us they would listen to friends and family who encouraged them to get involved in community issues only 4% said they could be inspired by their MP!

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