Sunday, 19 September 2010

There's the no such thing as (the BIG) society

Newsome's 'Big Society' Clean Up Gang. 

Margaret Thatcher famously informed us that that there was no such thing as 'Society' now her latest Conservative successor David Cameron not only believes Society exists but he wants it to be 'big' as well. This comes as surprise to many of us who were sure David Cameron believed in society but only 'High Society'. OK that's got the Posh Tory jibes out of my system and onto the subject of  the 'Big Society'.

A central belief of 'The Big Society' is that services are better delivered by individuals, community groups and charities rather than public bodies and a belief that we need to 'turn government completely on it's head'. There is also a belief that somehow people's natural desire to improve their communities is being stifled by local or central government and that barriers need to be removed to enable the Big Society to flourish. As David Cameron said in July "stop us from stopping you do things for your area".

What comes to mind is a conversation the Newsome Green Party Team had in a pub in the late 90s where we believed we were no longer just community activists but the providers of services. In fact as I remember it we went as far as to say we had become not merely Councillors but an alternative to Council Services. We started to list all the things we did or did with volunteers in the area. When buses were removed from service over the Christmas holiday period we brought in a free volunteer bus service, when areas got heavily littered we organised skips and clean up teams to clear rubbish, when no recycling services existed Councillor Graham Simpson did a waste paper collection round to many households around the Newsome area. I even stretched the point to the limit and suggested that at its height our casework gathering in Council estates was estate management. Like all conversations after a few beers the case may have been overstressed but there was a still a lot of truth there. While believing in voluntarism there was still a strong element of campaigning (and shaming) of the public sector to pick up the slack of inadequate provision in the Newsome area. So the waste paper collections played their part in encouraging Kirklees to put more effort into household recycling, the Christmas Buses pushed Metro into provision of services on Boxing Day at least. So if anything much as we believed in the power of people doing things for themselves we also believed that the public sector could do more than it was doing not less..

The role of the 'Big Society' should not be to replace the management  and provision of publicly funded services but to enhance them to provide additionality to what is provided already. The classic example in Newsome is 'Growing Newsome'. Volunteers working together on local food projects doing the level of detailed work that would never be provided by the Council nor should it be. This is individuals coming together with passion and commitment on a project which should be more fun than worthy. If the Big Society is not about additionality it is by definition about changing the management of local services from the public sector  to charities or community groups. There may be some limited value in this. For instance I can imagine a strong role for the Fuel Poverty Charity, National Energy Action in taking on the role of managing and monitoring progress on action to improve energy efficiency taking powers away from DECC and possibly local authorities. I just wonder whether taking powers from central government is what Dave actually meant. It would be interesting to test this.

Capacity and enthusiasm are the keys to successful volunteer action. A lot of people are simply not interested. Why support local food projects when there's so much quality Reality TV to watch. Those who are interested may have lots of different commitments limiting their capacity and eventually people will get bored of growing marrows for the community (or whatever) and want to move onto something else. This is one reason why we need to think very carefully before core services are moved from the Public Sector for the sake of those people who rely on them.

A classic example of the 'Big Society' gone bad is the concept of 'Free Schools' where parents or charities can get together to run and manage a local school. This will undoubtably unfairly skew financial provision from publicly funded schools to once run by religious organisations or discontented parents who can't justify a school in their area under normal circumstances. Again this would not be additional provision it would be a dubious way of creating yet more inequality in our stupid 'choice' based education system. (Don't get me started!)

A real test of the Government's commitment to the Big Society would be to actually public fund it rather than doing a one off trawl of dormant bank accounts. If it really believes it will deliver better more efficient and cost effective services it would be worth it, wouldn't it?

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