Recently I visited Liverpool with the Prime Minister and a number of other colleagues. We had the privilege of meeting representatives from a wide range of local charities, social enterprises, churches, businesses and other community groups. The purpose was to share a fresh vision for the relationship between state and society.
For too long those with the best ideas, the greatest commitment and the most innovative responses to social and other needs have either not been taken seriously enough – or have been held back by centrally-imposed rules that make no sense on the ground.
This has to change. The state should exist to service civil society, not the other way round.
Since becoming a minister, I have experienced the way in which the enormous resources of the state are placed at the disposal of the political and bureaucratic chain of command. On one level, I am very grateful for this. My civil servants work diligently to keep me informed, to open channels of communication and to overcome obstacles to those parts of the Coalition programme for which I’m responsible. However, I am acutely conscious that the experience that others have of the state can be very different: in particular, the institutions of civil society that, far from being helped by the bureaucracy, are hindered by it.
The Liverpool visit saw the launch of a new approach: an effort to turn government upside-down and inside-out. Instead of the civil service only being focused upwards on providing advice to Ministers – and inwards on its own priorities – we are driving the focus downwards and outwards to put those resources at the service of communities nationwide.
In my own department, I have established a “barrier-busting” team whose sole purpose is to help community groups get the backing they need when they encounter bureaucratic obstacles to local objectives. Sometimes that will mean providing advice on ways around the obstacles. Sometimes it will mean knocking heads together. Most of all it will mean systematically gathering the evidence we need to tackle the problem at source – by reforming and repealing the legislation and regulation at fault.
Last week I was in Yorkshire learning more. For example, at Massingham Mills Community Association in Bradford I met an energetic group of citizens from throughout the area to learn from the experiences of charities, community associations, and other social enterprises that have got so much done in the face of so many obstacles. I have also visited the South West and met groups in London too. In the autumn we will take this forward into the new localism bill that will decentralise power not just to local government, but also beyond the state to the formal and informal institutions of civil society.
For many of us now in Government, this represents a breakthrough in our long struggle against the centralisation of power. Inspired by David Cameron’s vision of the big society, Eric Pickles’s stalwart localism and Iain Duncan Smith’s crusade for social justice, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to redistribute power to those that truly know and care for the needs of our nation.
> Greg Clark last week delivered a major speech to Policy Exchange and CentreForum, expanding on these themes, which you read here.