What's the Big Idea?

communities, devolution and localism, political ideas, regional issues

Author(s):  Ed Cox
Published date:  27 Jul 2010
Source:  LocalGov.co.uk

There is something about the hopeful promise of collective action that every council should nurture.

Big Society is one of the most talked-about, blogged-about and tweeted-about terms of the new government, but is it really a ‘big idea’ or is it nothing more than the hot air once pumped from Battersea Power Station where it was first launched before the general election?

The fact that it has required at least three ‘launches’ tells a story in itself. But the latest unveiling in Liverpool at least points towards a degree of reality with four ‘vanguard communities’ – we’re not allowed to have ‘pilots’ anymore – about to become testbeds for Big Society in action.

It is easy to find cynics. Clearly, there is nothing new about local activism. In the last decade, councils have had a growing awareness of the importance of good community engagement as a bedrock for local regeneration and service provision. In 2008, [former communities secretary] Hazel Blears launched her own ‘power to the people’ initiative with Communities in control: The empowerment White Paper.

But Big Society dates back far further than that, indeed, right back to the days of the civic municipalism from which many of our Northern cities were born.

Recalling such times, though, reminds us of an era when the poorest in society depended on charitable help rather than the welfare state. And such a spectre haunts today’s plans, however much ministers protest that Big Society is not a ‘fig leaf’ for public sector spending cuts.

But while local activism might not be anything new, the rhetoric certainly marks a significant change.

With Big Society, the Conservative Party has banished any notion that there is ‘no such thing as society’. And where the Labour Party somehow managed to undermine bottom-up notions of empowerment with its preference for centralised approaches to service provision, Big Society is clearly associated with the push for localism.

But, beware any councils thinking that Big Society might mean more for them. On the contrary, as new academy schools, elected local police chiefs and health White Paper reforms show very clearly... this is all about citizen power.

Rhetoric aside, for Big Society to flourish, it must past three tests.

First, it must build capacity. With very little money to go around, Big Society plans depend on community groups becoming more enterprising – selling their services and winning public sector contracts.

Research carried out by ippr north reveals many organisations claiming to be community or social enterprises are currently relying on grants. In an online survey conducted with social enterprises in the North West, grant funding had been the primary port of call for more than 70% of respondents in the last 12 months.

Many felt that public sector contracts were out of reach for the kinds of community organisation best placed to become local service providers. In short, there seems little appetite among local groups to step up to the plate on the scale necessary.

Small acts of neighbourly kindness – yes. Wholesale responsibility for local service delivery – no.

The Big Society Bank – an idea actually mooted in all three party manifestos – is meant to address this problem, but with only around £75m to share around, the gap between rhetoric and reality looks very wide indeed.

Community capacity-building represents a big challenge for local authorities, both in terms of whether and how it continues to invest in supporting the community sector, but also in the way in which it tenders out key contracts.

Second, Big Society must be clearly targeted towards those communities which need it most. The idea has grown up as a response to so-called ‘Broken Britain’, with the view that state action has made many low income neighbourhoods too dependent.

Roll back the state and society will step forward. If only this was so easy. In all likelihood, the ‘little platoons of civic society’ that the Government imagines will seize their newly-created powers will be in the leafy suburbs more than in the inner cities, with the result that the gap between rich and poor will grow.

Unless, of course, councils use what levers they have to nurture and encourage the seeds of hope that so often emerge, even in the toughest neighbourhoods.

Putting the best frontline staff – not least those with community development skills – in the poorest communities could be key.

But, perhaps the biggest test of all for Big Society is whether you and I get involved.

The Conservatives’ manifesto said it would transform the civil service into a ‘civic service’, with a pledge that its staff’s personal involvement in community activity would become part of civil servants’ appraisal processes. Such a prescriptive approach might not be warranted, but it sends out a clear signal – this is for everyone.

As part of our recent study, we visited five examples of community enterprises which were thriving in very challenging neighbourhoods. In each case, there was a small band of people, many from diverse backgrounds who, despite the ups and downs, all enthused about their work and the difference it made to life in their neighbourhoods. In meeting such fulfilled characters, all cynicism fades, and one is left with a real urge to get involved.

Call it Big Society, call it what you will, there is something about the hopeful promise of collective action that every council should nurture and treasure. And, if [prime minister] David Cameron has simply reminded us of that, then we should be thankful.


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Ed Cox, Director, IPPR North