In the Royal Borough of Kensington & Cheslea, we have just decided to allocate an extra £500,000 towards the local charitable and voluntary sector. It might seem counter-intuitive at first, but I believe that this one-off increase in public sector spending can help to make public finances more sustainable in the long term by actually reducing the future size of the state.
Of course, it is essential that we Conservatives continue to drive for greater efficiencies within the public sector and to show that with innovation and a business-like mindset it is possible to do more with less. However, to ensure that the state can be reduced to the right levels, we also need to find ways of reducing people’s need for and dependence on state-provided services. I don’t think we can do this by simply denying the validity of all those needs, instead we must demonstrate that those needs are best met by society itself rather than by the state, and that is why it is worth investing now to support a strong and flourishing civil society.
Like all Councils we have had to make many difficult decisions about how to find the savings that are required nationally in order to dig us out of the mess that the last Labour government left us in. We have done our utmost to protect the frontline services and have instead looked for innovative ways to reduce back office and management costs. Primarily, we have managed to do this through what we call Triborough working – sharing senior management posts for a host of business groups with our neighbours in Westminster and Hammersmith and Fulham.
The new Triborough work does entail various risks, and we need to stay alert and guard against those risks, but so far we have managed to make substantial savings, which would otherwise have had to be found from our frontline services. Indeed, it is because of some earlier than expected savings from this Triborough work that we have been able to find this extra £500,000. We already have a strong network of formal and informal groups and organisations and they provide many valuable services to our communities more effectively and cheaply than we can. However, I am confident that the more innovative and entrepreneurial charities, voluntary organisations, and social enterprises out there can achieve even more with the right support.
There are many examples of these groups and organisations doing fantastic work, but I will mention just one such example here. In the last year, one of our local residents, who had never run a charity before, but who understands how important it is for “second halfers” (as she likes to describe people over 50 years old) to live active and full lives, since that will keep them engaged and interested, which in turn will keep them healthy, decided to set up a new Second Half Centre in North Kensington (where the average life expectancy is as much as 12 years less than in the more prosperous south of the borough). She managed to persuade the local NHS to let the Centre be situated in one of its unused buildings, and she also got a relatively small grant from the Council, but she was then able to leverage on that public sector support to bring in over £250,000 from private philanthropy, and the Centre is set to open its doors to the public this autumn.
It is precisely to encourage and support this sort of entrepreneurial spirit and innovation that the Council decided to allocate this extra £500,000 to its grants budget for the voluntary sector. I believe that these organisations and groups – be they charitable, religious, social, sporting, or whatever – have many key
functions within our communities: just as important as the actual services they deliver is the fact that these networks provide a sense of purpose and belonging to people. In turn, the bonds and relationships created through these groups help to build stronger and more resilient communities. This then means that there is reduced demand on the already over-stretched public finances. In this way, they can help create a virtuous circle.
As a Conservative, I do not advocate the roll back towards a night-watchman state, because it is clear the state does play an important role in so many areas beyond national defence, upholding the rule of law, and the provision of very basic common goods. However, for too long politicians of all persuasions have been promising the electorate that the state can solve all society’s problems, and it is time we acknowledge that this is not the case. In the ensuing public debate about where state responsibilities begin and end, we Conservatives must recognise the need for the various functions that we don’t think the state can continue to do, and then present a convincing alternative of how these needs can best be met. I believe that it is civil society – all the institutions and associations between the individual and the state – that can best fill this gap and help ensure that the Conservatives do win this crucial debate.