Editorial: The Big Society


Now that the impact of cuts is being felt, cynics are thinking of the Big Society as the government’s way of dumping central responsibilities onto the voluntary sector, and since the voluntary sector relies on the government – central or local – for its funding, there is no way in which it can realistically take on this role as things stand. The danger is that the Big Society is understood only in financial terms, and dismissed.

The second problem is that the Big Society is not a clear-cut concept. It sounds woolly and idealistic, and so the second reaction is to dismiss it as a bit of a laugh. Steve Bell in the Guardian has done this expertly in pictures.

The third criticism is that it is nothing new; in the UK we have always gone for the Big Society. We have an excellent track record of people volunteering to do all sorts of things – mountain rescue, running women’s refuges and hospices, special policing and so on. The balance between paid and unpaid work in this country has always been good. As Archbishop Sentamu said, the Church has been doing the Big Society for two thousand years; if you look in Acts 2 you will see that the early church was involved from the start.

There is a danger, then, that David Cameron’s drive will be dismissed on financial grounds, as a woolly joke and from exasperation on the grounds that it is not new. We think that this is a mistake, and for the present we put forward three linked ideas.

Three ideas

The first is what the European Union called subsidiarity – the principle of devolving decision-making to the lowest level consistent with maintaining standards. Saying that an idea is supported by the European Union is not a strong selling point in this country, but the idea is good. It means that decisions are taken close to the people whom they affect. If an issue is regional, then the national government should not be making the decisions. If it is a parish matter, the local authority should leave it to the parish. (It is the strongest argument for General Practitioners to control the budgets used to meet patients’ needs, as they personally know what is wrong, and services will then need to be shaped to meet patients’ needs, not vice versa.)

Under recent governments – both Labour and Conservative – there has been a steady erosion of local decision-making, with increased central prescription and standard-setting. The Big Society concept should help to reverse that trend, to give more power to local authorities and to smaller groups serving local communities. We think that this is a move in the right direction. It will lead to some post code lottery problems, but we think that the individuality of local communities and their need for more autonomy make that a price worth paying.

Secondly there is a need to strengthen local communities. Of course there are communities that are healthy, but there are others which are decidedly sick or weak, and over the last half century the amount of population movement has weakened the stability of many communities. Reactions against the numbers of immigrants is only one symptom. People have moved in unprecedented numbers to seek work or live in more salubrious areas. It is said that on average a third of the population moves every year in some inner London boroughs.

Ways need to be found to strengthen local communities and to help incomers settle in and identify with the areas where they move.

Thirdly we need a dialogue about the balance between paid and voluntary work. It is a bit of a nonsense as it stands and there are lots of anomalies. A person may work voluntarily after retirement for a charity doing all the things s/he did for good pay prior to retirement, for example. The pensionable age is going up, changing the balance of those expected to be in employment and those on pensions. Families care for relatives, offering intensive care which would cost the state billions if it had to be provided on a paid basis. Even a small shift away from the Big Society in this field could wreck the budgets of local authorities, yet the support which carers receive is one of the potential areas for cuts.

We have no clear vision of the way things should be, but we see all the millions of hours put in on a voluntary basis as part of the Big Society, and we believe that it should be supported and encouraged.

In short, we believe that power and resources should be devolved as far as possible, that communities should be strengthened and that we need a new understanding of the role that people working voluntarily can fulfil. These are all important objectives. They will remain important regardless of the financial situation. They are not a joke. They may have been part of the way communities work for thousands of years, but they still need supporting and encouraging, and at a time of major change, they merit careful thought.

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