Glyn Gaskarth says the Big Society can succeed but only if some bold reforms are implemented
The Big Society is a clumsy phrase. It was a very poor election slogan which meant nothing on the doorstep. However, the idea is attractive and could work. It speaks to traditional Conservative values of localism, self-reliance and civic responsibility. Some on the political left argue that many areas don’t have the capacity to help themselves, they are wrong, but the right needs to explain what the Big Society is and how everyone can contribute. We are failing to do this, which is lethal to the project.
First, local councils and central government need to identify the space in which they wish the Big Society to operate. A healthy male can mow a lawn or clear a drive. A healthy female could form a neighbourhood watch; volunteer to assist at a local school, help at the local library or begin to run a youth group for local children etc. We can all think of tasks that ordinary private citizens could perform. Local government needs to review what it does and decide what it will no longer do. If voluntary groups are to do these roles then local government needs to stop doing them.
Here the left interjects – but what about the poorer areas, this may work in Surrey but it will not in Liverpool, they don’t have the capacity.
Actually, deprived areas have ample capacity; it is just that the ability to act is often not matched by the inclination to do so. Councils are responsible for this precisely because they do too much. If you treat people as though they can’t do anything they are likely to do nothing. Even worse many will develop a sense of entitlement, believing that others should be responsible for providing them with everything they need. One of the most depressing aspects of the Big Society is David Cameron’s call for community organisers. It is a big state initiative at odds with the whole localist message of the Big Society. The scarce resources used to fund it could be diverted to pay for greater tax breaks for charitable groups successfully working to improve their communities.
Second, we need to develop a philanthropic culture in the UK. Reports in the press allege that public spending cuts will decimate Britain’s volunteer army. Few of them report that UK charities receive £11 billion from Government per annum but raise only £10 billion from public subscriptions. The voluntary sector has been nationalised. The average national charity is not dissimilar to a quango but without the public accountability. We should not be paying voluntary group’s taxpayers’ money to do what civil servants used to do.
Third, everyone can contribute. Some individuals may be disabled, ill or elderly; others may have full time work which combined with their family responsibilities leaves little time for civic tasks. We need to be creative about finding ways for all citizens to do their bit to make our society better. This could also involve requiring those who get most assistance from society to give something back. Many billions of pounds are spent providing social housing, granting income support and jobseekers allowance. Shouldn’t local councils be empowered to require residents to do something for their community to qualify to receive support?
Large percentages of the workforce in deprived areas are unemployed. They have ample time to volunteer and a need to do so. Volunteering for a charity allows an individual to get a good character reference, which provides the potential to obtain gainful employment. They can participate and should be expected to do so. The poorest British citizens have advantages that many immigrants who emigrated here in the last decade did not initially have, such as fluency in English. There was not a problem with incapable Poles who required capacity building assistance from their local authority. If some Britons are incapable we must ask why this is so and what we can do about it.
Fourth, central and local government need to stop acting as a barrier to citizens taking a civic role. Council representatives often relate that there is not a demand to take over council tasks and if voluntary groups are not guided they will not fulfil their legal and procedural obligations. What are these obligations? They include such tasks as conducting a risk register, an equalities impact assessment and a health and safety log. Most impose real time and financial costs on anyone seeking to improve their community and need to be abolished. Making it more difficult to form and run charitable groups may have an effect on people’s propensity to form them.
Fifth, some people act as a negative force, we need to recognise this and deal with it. Social problems are caused by people not structures. There should be an expectation that people act well. Those who act badly should be punished. For some individuals not being a negative factor would be a start. Desisting from urinating in the street, graffiti-ing their local area or playing their music loud would be welcome. We need to stop making excuses for poor behaviour. There is little value in a community developing and maintaining a public park if the authorities will not punish those who vandalise it. This is a legitimate role for Government and should be retained in the new era.
The Big Society is a revolutionary idea for Government not an election winning slogan. It means reducing the size of Government, building genuine charitable groups that obtain private not public funding and are run by local people for local people. It deserves our full support.
The views expressed above are my personal views and not those of my employer or any other organisation with which I am associated.