WHEN I was a boy of seven or eight, I would go out on to my street with a plastic bag and collect all the litter.
As you may guess from this anecdote, I was an overly-earnest child, but I suppose my heart was in the right place.
It’s good that there are publicly-spirited people, like the younger version of me, who are prepared to give their time and energy to improve their area.
But the enthusiastic volunteer can’t be relied upon to do everything. You can’t leave the cleaning of a street to a nerdy eight-year-old with NHS glasses.
The thought came to me this week as I read David Cameron’s speech about his so-called Big Society.
Speaking in Liverpool on Monday, the Prime Minister praised volunteering.
There should be more of this, said Mr Cameron, the Government must step back and allow a thousand neighbourhood watch groups to bloom.
And reading the speech, I found there was much with which I agreed.
"Micro-management from Westminster doesn’t work." I’ll drink to that.
"Give professionals more freedom." Hear hear.
"Push power from central government to local government." Absolutely.
These are sentiments which most of us, whatever our politics, would share.
But then Mr Cameron went further, suggesting that community groups and charities could step in to take over the running of parks, libraries and post offices.
And that was where he and I parted company. Because I believe that running these services is the job of the public sector, not sections of the public.
The Government has the legions of workers and the decades of expertise needed to perform these tasks. It’s wrong to expect the community – made up of over-worked, stressed-out people – to suddenly take over their post office.
On a local level I think of the Friends of Marsden Park. It’s great that this group exists to try to improve the village’s park. But it does so in partnership with Kirklees Council, whose support is critical.
The friends’ group is there as a complement to the public sector, not a replacement.
If the Government closes a post office, or the council shuts a library it’s admirable that public-spirited people try to re-open them. But surely the best solution is for the post office or library not to be closed in the first place.
This, I think, is going to be the undoing of Mr Cameron’s Big Society. For all that the Prime Minister protests that he has been pushing this policy for years, the fact is his big reform has arrived just as massive public spending cuts start to bite.
With services being slashed, many people will come to see the Big Society as a replacement for Government.
Don’t like the fact we closed your library? Re-open it yourself, slacker.
No more funding to rebuild your crumbling high school? Start your own school then, lazy bones.
Council can’t afford to grit the roads any more? Get your shovel out, you dosser.
It’s great there are so many voluntary groups in this country. As an experiment, I went on the Kirklees website and typed the word "Meltham" into the search engine.
Do you know how many groups came up for this one village? 45.
Everything from Meltham Mills Band to Meltham Sheepdog Society to Meltham Over 60s Club.
It’s wonderful that so many people give so much of their free time to make their village a better place.
But please don’t ask them to run the post office as well.
Don’t expect them to collect the bins.
And don’t think that some nerdy eight-year-old in Meltham can keep the streets of his village litter-free.