The Big Society – or back to little societies?

Suddenly the Big Society appears to be unravelling.  First we have the Government’s champion of voluntarism, Lord Wei, announcing that he had to reduce his voluntary work in order to earn a living, somewhat to the embarrassment of his ministerial colleagues.  Then we have the outgoing chief executive of Community Service Volunteers declaring that the whole voluntary movement is under dire threat from government funding cuts.  And in the same week it is reported that the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, one of the icons of voluntarism, is facing threats of closure in several cities because of local government cuts.   Even more embarrassingly, Liverpool City Council – which had hosted the launch of the Big Society – now disavows it.  Indeed what was heralded as a new age of community engagement, local choice, renewed voluntary activity and greater social cohesion threatens to become the very opposite, an age of increasing social and economic differentiation, reduced public services and greater inequalities.

The theory of the Big Society was never fully explained.  Instead we have generalised propositions such as that attributed to the minister in charge, Nick Hurd, that it’s “all about bringing the country together and trying to give everyone the chance to be involved”.

It is by no means clear who “the country” represents, nor is involvement explained.   Buried in the rhetoric about choice and endeavour, there is the notion of public provision being organised by groups of loosely affiliated individuals who, we are told, can provide public services better than the state, with all its structures and professional expertise.  A library, it appears, can be run by groups of untrained individuals more economically and just as well as fully-trained librarians; a school created by parents who have no necessary training or experience in teaching or in school management can become a more successful institution than a conventional school.  So what, one may ask, are the limits of this Big Society?  Might the nation’s home defences be run more economically by groups of vigilantes who are passionate about defence and security?  And what about the fire services or the police?

But just beneath the surface there is always the belief that, if all fails, the private sector will arrive in time to provide the better, more efficient, more customer-focused service they have always provided in contrast to the bureaucratic and incompetent public sector.  That, at least, is a recognisable theory, even though the experience of the banking or railway industries tends to suggest the opposite.

What is clear is that the voluntary sector, a pivot of the Big Society, is experiencing huge difficulties in meeting the challenge, because voluntarism rarely functions in isolation from the state.  Many voluntary and third sector organisations who deal with core public services have depended historically on public funding as much as charitable giving.  From the CAB to Kid’s Company in Southwark, organisations across the country have delivered public services through a mixture of volunteering and paid work supported by local and central government.  It is this mixture which is now threatened because, in the absence of core funding, many such organisations are unsustainable.  It is pious optimism to suggest that private philanthropy will suddenly appear in the same proportion, or in the same places, as the disappearing public purse.

In the meantime, there is a real danger of a return to the kind of postcode lottery which successive governments have sought to remove.  Britain is a highly differentiated society; with the exception of London and a few large metropolitan areas, rich and poor do not live side by side. Even where they do – as, say, the inhabitants of Stockwell Park Estate in Lambeth and their near neighbours in the grand villas of  Durand Gardens – it is very difficult to determine which community they belong to, given the huge disparity in social capital and, presumably, social culture.  Communities rich in networks and professional resources, supported by high disposable incomes, are quite capable of organising free schools, or staffing a local library, although there are serious doubts whether busy professionals, bankers or lawyers, really have the time or inclination to take on such tasks; even if they are regular volunteers, there is a world of a difference between some charitable work and managing a public service.  Across the other side of the tracks, does anyone seriously suggest that communities where the median family income is substantially below the national average, where educational attainment is poor, where regular employment is the exception and where social and economic networks are poor, are in any position to exercise the choices the Big Society supposedly offers?  Poor communities need government for their very survival.

The auguries for the Big Society were never very good once huge public sector spending cuts began to bite. If the onus for maintaining many public services falls on individuals, their families and their neighbours, the outcome will certainly not be same for everyone.  The removal of public libraries will have little effect on families who can afford to send their children to library-rich private schools, but will have incalculable effects on families for whom buying a book is a major item of expenditure.  The ending of rural transport subsidies will mean little to those who have abundant alternative means of transport, 4×4 and otherwise, but will have an enormous effect on those who depend on public transport to get to work or even find a job, let alone visit a supermarket.  And the disappearance of the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau will mean nothing to those who do not require advice because they have ample personal resources, but will be a huge loss to those who just don’t know how to cope or where to turn.

I confess I am not a sociologist or economist, but as a historian I am struck with the parallels between some of the rhetoric of the Big Society and the philosophy which underpinned the parish relief, boards of guardians, poor law commissioners, school boards, not to mention the Charity Organisation Society and similar relief agencies, which managed what passed for public service in the 19th century.  Nor is it a new idea to roll back the state to give greater scope for personal choice; after all, what else was the purpose of Lord Rothermere’s Anti-Waste League in the 1920s?  And is the Big Society really any different from Margaret Thatcher’s reported claim that there is no such thing as society, just individuals?  So in the end the Big Society may well turn out to be a collection of scattered Little Societies and an inchoate mass of individual effort.

There are good and bad moments in economic history.  This happens to be a particularly bad moment to launch an ambiguous and untested Big Society when what is actually needed at the present time is more effective and efficient government, so that successful public-private, state-third sector, professional-voluntary partnerships can flourish in the interest of everyone in society.

Professor Sir Deian Hopkin, who has worked in higher education for over 40 years, is Chairman of the Local Economy Policy Unit and one of the editors of Local Economy.

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