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Ensuring the Big Society is a fair society

IPPR North , communities , devolution and localism , fairness , public services , regional issues



This project sought to explore with third sector organisations and activists in the North East regions the questions so far unanswered about the Big Society.

These questions include:

  • The capacity to respond: Community capacity is not distributed equally, and neither is it as straightforward as deprived communities lack capacity while wealthy communities do not. How should a Big Society approach ensure all communities have the capacity to respond to this opportunity?
  • Targeting need: Linked to the above point, how should the resources available be distributed?
  • Funding: Funding is always a crucial issue for third sector organisations, and do the funding commitments associated with the Big Society add up?
  • Reforming public services: The involvement of the sector in the reform of public services has been on the policy agenda for a number of years, but how far have we progressed, and what barriers remain to be tackled for the Big Society to flourish?
  • Achieving mass engagement: Mass engagement is a bold aim, what steps need to be taken to move towards this achievement?


The ‘Big Society’ is central theme shaping Conservative Party thinking about the future of the UK. It is an agenda that has raised some big and challenging questions, both for society as a whole and for the third sector in particular. The Big Society rests on three core policy themes:

  • Reinvigorating the third sector to play a more active role in public service reform
  • Stimulating neighbourhood action
  • Promoting a culture of ‘responsibility, mutuality and obligation’ to enable ‘mass engagement’.

In policy terms Big Society involves enabling third sector organisations to take a bigger role in public service provision. This would be achieved through the creation of a £75 million Big Society Bank to invest funds from unclaimed bank assets to finance such activity and provide funds to intermediary support bodies.

It also sets out powers and rights for neighbourhood groups, and the re-designation of some Futurebuilders funding into neighbourhood grants to stimulate neighbourhood action. This will be further complemented by the drive for 5,000 ‘community organisers’.

This could amount to a brave and ambitious approach to bringing ‘community’ to the centre of public policy. Certainly the rhetorical flourish that has accompanied the Conservative Party’s rediscovery of the community sector has been widely welcomed. 

Project detail

This project aimed to influence the government’s Big Society agenda in a positive and progressive way for the North East by:

  • Improving third sector understanding of the Big Society agenda in the North East of England
  • Developing a North East third sector response to the ‘Big Society’, which sends a clear message on what the sector welcomes, and where there are questions to be answered
  • Influencing the way local authorities implement the Big Society agenda.