Monday 7 February 2011

Why is Big Society crumbling?

The news that Lord Wei, Big Society Tsar needs to cut back so that he can earn some money and have "more of a life" is obviously hysterically funny.

This election broadcast by Labour is also very funny - perhaps Lord Wei should have watched it before he signed up!! It shows a harassed Mum trying to teach in a "free school" do her stint as a social worker, man the zebra crossing and take crime reports. The slogan at the end reads "Big Society. Where people do the things Governments used to."

Even the launch was funny. The metaphor of an abandoned Battersea Power Station and the burnt-out, desolate wasteland in front didn't really make the Conservative manifesto or its vision for Big Society look very...well, inviting did it?

The really, really sad thing is that this is probably the best idea to come out of a Tory government for decades. We can all snip and snipe, but actually, there's nothing at all I disagree with about the concept and I think with real political will it could have been transformative in so many ways.

It's not crumbling because it's a bad idea, it's crumbling because to work it needs genuine commitment and that just isn't there.

This report from a friend who gave Big Society a real chance shows how volunteers have no support, the idea is not well publicised and local residents aren't being inspired.

Today, the BBC are running this story on Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, head of the Community Service Volunteers, who concludes that
The government's spending cuts are "destroying" volunteering and undermining its "big society" vision...
and this was perfectly clear before the election even took place. Just as PR-Dave was struggling to explain to us all how Big Society would work, how volunteers, or the "third sector," would be nurtured to support local communities, the Tory flagship Westminster City Council were cutting £500,000 from the voluntary services budget. I'm afraid I lost all faith in the Big Society right there.

Like a stuck record, I've said endlessly that it won't be cuts that fatally damage this coalition - it will be the sheer incompetence. The "back-of-an-envelope," ill thought through policies and the seeming inability to look at the bigger picture. Can there be a better example than slashing charity funding at the same time as trying to encourage the very same sector to do more? As Dame Hoodless points out
"it's about one hand not appreciating what the other hand's doing"
The often modest grants given to charities and voluntary groups usually save society many, many, times what they cost. If Cameron had pumped real money into the Big Society, he may have seen some genuinely phenomenal results and saved his government a lot of cash in the long run.

And this is the crux of the matter. To "fix" society, you need to know how it's broken. You need the will to fix it. You need money and unshakeable commitment. A Conservative government was never, ever going to support an idea like Big Society in the way that it needs, because they just don't understand the concept of spending a quid to save 5. Did they fully understand just how many people were already volunteering or helping out neighbours or caring for sick or elderly relatives? Did they do any research into whether people felt there was more that they could do? Or did they just watch well-to-do Witney residents making jam and holding fetes and collecting for a new church roof and assume no-one else was doing their bit in their less affluent communities up and down the country?

This letter to the Guardian was signed by scores of third sector experts, pleading with the government to think things through, but appears to have fallen on deaf ears. The voluntary sector will continue to face cuts as local authority budgets are slashed by over 25% and the state will have no choice but to pick up the slack - the very opposite of what Cameron hopes for.

This example better than all others, illustrates how very, very unlikely it is that Little-Lord-Osborne will manage to reduce the deficit at all. If a cut will cost you more in the long run, it really ought to be re-considered.

I won't be celebrating the collapse of the Big Society idea. There is no glee from this article, no undercurrent of hoping to see egg on Cameron's face. The Big Society could have saved us from the worst of this coalition and their obsession with austerity cuts. Sadly, it looks like Maggie was right and under a Tory government, there really is "No such thing as Society" - Big or otherwise - after all.


  1. She is right. Volunteering is being harmed by the cutbacks. One of the places where I have been doing volunteer work officially closes today. I got my leaving card on Wednesday and I still can't believe I might not be going back there. Three hard working people redundant, one redeployed elsewhere. Children having to travel further afield on school trips, how does that help them or the environment?

  2. I can completely agree with you on this. The big society is a big no no. From what I can see DAVE and NICKS onslaught on the sick, and disabled of this country sickens me.

    What sickens me more is the shameless attempt by the government to put third party providers aka charities in the firing line. Sick and Disabled are being forced/coerced by the very charities that are meant to help them into decisions that they should make. Not exact words as commented by someone in the TUC but the same sentiment meant.

    It is very likely that a high proportion of those forced on to workfare will be disabled and
    other disadvantaged people, who will be more likely than non-disabled people to reach the end
    of the flexible New Deal without having obtained a job; workfare, in addition to all its other
    drawbacks, thus has the potential to be discriminatory in its impact.
    It is an extreme form of exploitation to require someone to work without pay and the TUC is
    fundamentally opposed to compulsory unpaid work experience for extended periods in jobs
    that would otherwise be taken by workers paid the rate for the job. This would exploit

    As Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind put it:
    “We welcome the recognition that the voluntary sector has an important role to play in
    helping people into employment, but our clients must always come first. Trust is one of the
    voluntary sector's unique selling points. We can't betray people by getting involved in
    compelling them into work before they are ready, or without the support they need.”