Big Society – heard it all before?

From Progress Online, July 2010:

I will start to believe claims about the value of Big Society when sentences about it also include words like ‘cohesion’, ‘comprehensive’, ‘partnership’ and ‘inclusive’. Although the Cameron ethos is being marketed as new and progressive, what does it do that is not being done or is not possible already? Is there not a danger that it could take away more than it is hoped it will add?

At least three out of every four adults already volunteers their time to a good and common cause at some point each year and a similar number donate cash. Thousands of charities and voluntary groups grew up precisely because people came together to take up a local cause, to put a wrong right, in the way that the Big Society’s authors anticipate. And whilst community ownership of assets is not yet commonplace, the principle is established and mechanisms to promote it already exist.

The Big Society starts by shifting deck chairs on the Titanic by relying on funding from streams that are already doing good work. The Big Society Bank, for example, will divert money already allocated to good causes by the 2008 Dormant Accounts Act whilst the ending of Futurebuilders is a sacrifice which generates no obvious net advantage.

Big Society makes an assumption that communities already have the capacity to identify problems, decide priorities, agree solutions and implement them. There is no doubt that some communities do, and for them the recycled funding, supplemented by direct access to civil servants, will be most welcome. But these are by and large the communities that function well in this respect already.

When Margaret Thatcher said that there was ‘no such thing as society’ she did not mean that there were no communities. She meant that each should look after their own, that ultimately only local mattered, that ‘government’ should get out of people’s lives where its presence was neither desirable nor essential. Despite his protestations, Cameron’s Big Society shares many of these libertarian values.

For a Big Society in which community organisations, voluntary groups, charities and individuals are making the running, where councils merely respond to the demands (rather than the needs) of localities and where central government has no responsibility is a recipe for anarchy. This is particularly risky where communities are led to believe that this is how they should proceed whilst lacking the cash, experience, eloquence and sharp elbows necessary to stand on their own two feet.

This is why infrastructure is so important. Councils need to be proactive in tackling exclusion and deprivation; central government must provide funding streams and all democratic bodies should consult thoroughly, listen attentively and respond appropriately.

Infrastructure needs are particularly urgent within the maturing third sector itself.

If local groups are to deliver more in the way of services, they need to co-ordinate their work with others in the same boat and work in consortia; to share good and best practice both in commissioning and delivery; and have access to capacity-building processes and skill development. They need to be genuine partners to local authorities to work on common programmes.

All these are under threat from a cuts agenda which regards back office functions as less important and therefore more readily discardable. Francis Maude’s exhortation to Cabinet colleagues to ‘observe Compact principles’ when considering cuts to third sector funding is very welcome, but falls very far short of reassuring the sector that the collective rights of the individuals and communities they serve will be paramount.

The commissioning of services will continue to be a growing area of funding for the third sector. They must resist ‘mission creep’ and seize the opportunity to improve life for those for whom they work. On funding, we take it as read that grants from statutory sources will be drastically reduced. We even see the proportion of Big Lottery funding destined for the voluntary and community sector being reduced from 50% of its revenue to 40% in the not too distant future. The proposed rise in VAT and next year’s loss of the transitionary funding for Gift Aid (since the basic rate of income tax was reduced in 2008) will hit voluntary groups hard if they cannot replace lost income through earnings.

Needing to diversify its income, the third sector is starting to look to the private sector. Many voluntary groups have developed those skills needed to hold their own in this more competitive arena, whilst many companies now find themselves seeking partners to deliver services previously regarded as being in the public domain. At the same time, shareholders may see a Corporate Social Responsibility policy which brings no return to the company as a luxury – unless relations between conscientious employers and the recipients of CSR become win:win partnerships.

Does the private sector have a role in this new vision of the Big Society?

In the statement which launched the Big Society

the only mention of ‘responsibility’ is of central government letting others assume it, and the only mention of deprivation is the acknowledgement that deprived areas would need more outside help, without the aim of addressing that deprivation. Of ‘inclusion’ and ‘partnerships’ there is no mention at all.

Despite my criticisms, I do believe that the high priority being given to the Big Society idea will generate opportunities – for the third sector, social enterprise and service users – as well as threats. If Government is not perfect, make it better; don’t just discard the responsibilities of office.

Mr Cameron is going to have to do a lot better than this if his Big Society is to bring people together and not just confirm what Mrs Thatcher observed a generation ago.


The author is a former MP and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Community and Voluntary Sector, now an independent consultant