James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union of Great Britain.
“There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.” Those words from David Cameron after becoming Conservative Party leader in 2005 formed the basis for what would become his policy of the Big Society.
The Conservative leader was speaking not long after Tony Blair had won his third successive general election. Labour were looking tired in government, and falling back on pulling various levers of state control in response to the mounting problems facing the country.
Cameron’s message was simple – it was time to create space for people to help shape the world around them and empower civil society to respond to society’s challenges. It’s a message we could do with hearing again as we recover from Covid.
Revisiting ideas from the Cameron era might not be the most fashionable thing to do in Conservative circles right now, but the need for a Big Society seems clearer than ever.
The pandemic has left a new high-water mark of state control. The Government borrowed £300 billion last financial year – mostly in response to Covid and lockdown support, including the furlough scheme which at one time was paying the wages of almost one in three workers across the UK.
This intervention was badly needed, and has helped struggling businesses and families keep their heads above water. But while the pandemic has shown what the state can do, it has also highlighted its limits. Government cash has often needed to be combined with the work of voluntary groups for it to be truly effective.
Nowhere is this better seen than in efforts to support the homeless during the pandemic. Churches in London played a crucial role in identifying those at risk and supporting people who fell through the cracks of the Government’s Everyone In scheme. A refreshment hub for the homeless has been run by a group of London churches in Trafalgar Square throughout the pandemic.
The response from civil society to Covid has been just as impressive as anything the Government has managed to achieve. The “little platoons” which Edmund Burke used to describe the importance of family, community, and place have been seen once again in the army of volunteers who have helped us through the pandemic with countless acts of kindness.
The role of faith groups has been particularly important. Churches often know the needs in their community better than anyone and can reach people that government services struggle to connect with. A recent report from the University of York on the importance of churches to their communities, found that 87 per cent of churches regularly contacted the isolated.
As we recover from the pandemic, there needs to be a much greater focus on the role of civil society in tackling local problems and a stronger emphasis on encouraging partnership between government and the voluntary sector. This is badly needed if manifesto commitments like ending rough sleeping by 2024 are going to be delivered.
While measures in the Queen’s Speech to reduce bureaucracy on charities and free up dormant assets are welcome, this is the moment for bolder action to unleash the power of civil society in the wake of the pandemic. The lack of reference to society in the Queen’s Speech is a worrying sign that we risk falling back into a statist mindset where only the Government can solve the challenges we face.
There is no shortage of ideas for how we can realise the potential of civil society. Danny Kruger’s excellent report on levelling up our communities is a good place to start. It includes plans for a Community Power Act to give local people power over the design and delivery of public services, as well as a New Deal for faith communities, which would see a greater role for faith groups in meeting social challenges.
There are also more immediate steps the Government could take to support civil society. The £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund was launched earlier this year, with the ministerial foreword stating that this will be used to “empower places to explore how best to tackle local challenges”. Despite the obvious contribution that churches and other places of worship could make, there is no mention of faith groups in the prospectus for the Fund.
The guidance notes on the Covid Local Support Grant for local authorities to support struggling families are also silent on faith groups. And yet if the Government wants to get support to where it is most needed, then it should be encouraging councils to work with local churches who are running food banks or mosques that are running support networks.
That is not to say that local authorities are currently prevented from working with faith groups. There are examples of local councils already partnering successfully with faith groups – including on projects like Family Hubs which help to integrate services for parents and children.
A clearer steer from central Government would provide assurance to more councils about the benefits of working with faith groups and encourage more of this partnering work across the country. That’s why the Catholic Union has called for better guidance for local authorities when it comes to working with faith groups. As Pope Benedict XVI said in his Westminster Hall speech in September 2010: “Religion is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.”
Cameron realised that his vision of the Big Society would not simply happen by the Government stepping back – it needed active encouragement and engagement with civil society. It led to the passing of the Localism Act 2011, which helped create new opportunities for local power and responsibility in the wake of the financial crisis.
Ten years on and we face the task of recovery from another crisis. Boris Johnson has the chance to complete the transformation of social policy which Cameron started by putting society at the heart of our plans for recovery. The Prime Minister will need the help of civil society for his vision of levelling up communities across the country.
The pandemic has shown what can be achieved by faith groups partnering with national and local government. As the full impact of Covid on our country is realised, we should avoid the temptation of looking to Whitehall for answers and instead look to our communities. Now is the moment to unleash the power of civil society.