Sarah Lyall is the Social Policy Lead at the New Economics Foundation .
Whatever happened to the Big Society? Back in 2010, David Cameron introduced the idea as his key organising principle. He wanted to see a society in which people – rather than the state – take responsibility for each other, and for several years he seemed determined to carry that agenda through in government. For a moment, it looked as though the it could be the legacy by which Cameron’s government would be remembered. But well before Brexit took that biscuit, the idea of a Big Society had already shrunk from view.
The Big Society had no shortage of critics, and they could be found across the political spectrum. On the Left, many suspected it was a smokescreen for cutting back public services; on the Right, free market liberals saw it as a fluffy distraction at best; and in the non-ideological centre, pragmatic types remained wholly unconvinced by its electoral appeal. Much of the criticism was justified. The Big Society was often about offloading responsibility on to people rather than pooling it between people and government. Proponents overlooked the economic and social inequalities which make it easy for some to participate and immensely difficult for others. As the pressures of government multiplied during the coalition years, the idea was quietly downplayed.
But now that Cameron is no longer Prime Minister, something is stirring. Is it possible that the Government could be building an alternative to the Big Society, but this time one that addresses the failings of the past?
At the beginning of this year, Theresa May set out her vision of a ‘Shared Society’ built on the “responsibilities we have to one another”. And she was explicit that “government has a clear role to play to support this conception of society”. Then, at a New Economics Foundation conference on ‘social action’ last week, Rob Wilson built on the Prime Minister’s vision. The Minister for Civil Society spoke of one “built on common bonds and shared responsibility”, in which communities are empowered through “partnerships across Government, business and civil society”. We do not yet know exactly what May’s government has to offer communities, but a picture is emerging of a new and improved way of working with local people – one based on a familiar idea of mutual responsibility but, this time, recognising the role the state has to play in nurturing it.
If the Government is serious about delivering this, then it should be welcomed and supported. If there is one lesson we learnt from the EU referendum last year, it is that people are crying out for more control over their lives. Major economic, social and political forces have undermined people’s sense of being able to affect their immediate surroundings. Family finances are strained, communities are divided, and people are suspicious and fearful of each other. We desperately need to give communities the tools they need to come together, take control and transform their lives.
This is where the idea of social action comes in. Social action is about investing in people’s capacity to take control of their lives, not leaving them to fend for themselves. It is about combining the energy and deep knowledge of people on the ground with the resources and expertise of the state to bring about truly community-led change. The terms are not set by government. People themselves champion the change they want and define the action they will take. The state’s role is to support, enable and equip people, removing barriers to participation with a particular focus on those who are usually marginalised.
At the New Economics Foundation, we have seen this kind of partnership in action. In Islington, the local Clinical Commissioning Group hired people to knock on doors on housing estates in order to get residents involved in setting up a new range of healthy activities. In Kirklees, over 130 user-led and voluntary groups received council funding to provide creative kinds of care for older and disabled people. And in Lambeth, the council responded to calls from local schools and community organisers to welcome refugees to the borough by agreeing to resettle 20 Syrian families. They also worked closely with London Citizens to identify good landlords, provide donated household goods and befriend parents and children joining Lambeth’s schools. If the Prime Minister wants to make her Shared Society a reality, these are the sorts of examples she should be studying.
Social action doesn’t happen automatically. It requires time, funding, and genuine power-sharing to flourish. If the government is serious about a Shared Society it will need to support local efforts to overcome inequalities with national ones aimed at fairer employment, social security and housing for those at the bottom. It will need to address the funding crisis in social care so that local government has money to invest in supporting local people to take action. Enacting the Conservative Manifesto pledge to create paid volunteering leave (starting at three days a year and building up) would help free up the time people need to participate. Sticking unswervingly to their commitment to shared rather than offloaded responsibility, the Government could see people renew control over their communities in place of feeling let down and left behind.
As James Asfa of Citizens UK put it at our event last week, power is not a zero-sum game. In the Big Society, it seemed as if there was only a certain amount of power to go round. Social action shows us that if people are given the time and resources to take real power, then the total sum of power can be increased. It is a virtuous circle, and one the Government should be doing everything it can to encourage.