Last week David Cameron announced plans to recruit and train 5,000 community workers as part of his 'Bigger Society, Smaller Government' agenda.
The idea has been condemned by Mark Littlewood of the Institute of Economic Affairs…
"It’s all very well for the Conservatives to wax lyrical about the merits of a post-bureaucratic age, but their prescriptions for society’s ills do seem to involve employing a large number of bureaucrats."
…and questioned by Matt Sinclair of The TaxPayers' Alliance:
"There is clearly a huge risk that the organisers could use their position to take up political causes and push those that fitted with their own views."
Matt Sinclair is right to be worried about the politicisation of community activists but he must also appreciate the need for better advocacy on disadvantaged estates. Clergy were once very powerful advocates for urban communities. Faith community leaders, because they were resident on estates, provided a voice for the voiceless when professional workers retreated to the suburbs at 5.30pm. The decline of the church's urban witness and the the general retreat of faith has left some communities without a voice. The Pilkington tragedy might not have happened if a community advocate had been able to bang heads together and forced officialdom to address the failure of the police and other statutory services to protect a vulnerable family from the terrible torment that ended in suicide for Ms Pilkington. The middle classes have always been better at accessing schools, hospitals and public services. Building similar capacity in disadvantaged neighbourhoods is no bad thing.
For Mark Littlewood the only thing that is necessary is for government to step back and civil society will blossom again. "Private groups of citizens," he blogs, "will spring up spontaneously and take positive action if government gets out of the way." I fear this is libertarian utopianism. Some individuals are so broken that they need intervention to help them stand on their own two feet. That certainly was the lesson of US welfare reform where the long-term unemployed needed all sorts of help with transport and self-esteem in order to leave welfare and the culture of welfare behind. Can we expect children who've never been properly parented to become good parents automatically? Can we expect communities that have only lived under the dead hand of the state to become vibrant centres of voluntarism without all sorts of supportive advice?
Any Cameron government needs to take the Littlewood/Sinclair warnings seriously but it's more important that it works with genuine civil society organisations to build the kind of welfare and family support services that so many communities lack.
The challenge for London's think tanks is to propose alternative ways of rebuilding the social infrastructure that lies betwen the individual and the state and, which we can all agree, the big state has usurped.