Thursday, 18 September 2014

The big idea

From: Out of office

David Cameron launched The Big Society Network at 10 Downing Street yesterday. It’s a government organisation that aims to act as ‘a practical, accessible resource for people who want to get involved in the government’s Big Society programme, enabling them to take action in their local areas’.

The idea of a Big Society ran throughout the Conservatives’ election campaign. It was offered as an antidote to the Labour party’s ‘Big Government’, which the Conservatives said was built on ‘paternalism and waste’, and involved devolving power to neighbourhood groups to boost social action.

Speaking at yesterday’s launch, Mr Cameron said, ‘We don’t just look to government to solve the many problems that we have, we actually look to ourselves, to voluntary bodies, to companies, to charities, to all of those things to build a bigger, richer country’.

The trouble with the Conservatives’ Big Society, is that it’s vague. Voters reportedly found the idea too woolly to grasp, and to be honest, I’m still grappling to understand what it’s going to mean for communities and the people – like social landlords – who are already working within them.

The Big Society network’s chief executive Paul Twivy said its three goals will be to encourage people to take action in their local area, to encourage people to take part in groups and to help community groups and social entrepreneurs to access the local powers that the Big Society programme will open up (see policy details given by the Cabinet office in May).

People who care about community empowerment will support the idea of the Big Society, but they’ll need to know more about how the rhetoric can be turned into reality. This report by independent think thank the New Economics Foundation, for example, highlights ‘Ten Big Questions About the Big Society’.

Twitter has been abuzz with people commenting on the Big Society. There’s a lot of talk – yes, volunteering is good, helping people is good – but how will the Big Society programme actually improve things?

In his blog, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, expresses his concern that the Big Society can be used as a short-cut to justify government policies. ‘The converse danger is that the Big Society becomes a coat of gloss paint that is applied to all initiatives to try to repel criticism,’ he says.

Ultimately, it seems that the Big Society will be a good thing for social landlords, giving them more power to work directly with communities – but at the moment ‘Big Society’ is really just two words joined to together to sound positive. 

What is the Big Society?

Shortly after the general election, the Cabinet office published this document ‘Building the Big Society’ detailing the coalition government’s policies that it believes will make the Big Society possible:

1. Give communities more powers

  • We will radically reform the planning system to give neighbourhoods far more ability to determine the shape of the places in which their inhabitants live.
  • We will introduce new powers to help communities save local facilities and services threatened with closure, and give communities the right to bid to take over local state-run services.
  • We will train a new generation of community organisers and support the creation of neighbourhood groups across the UK, especially in the most deprived areas.

2. Encourage people to take an active role in their communities

  • We will take a range of measures to encourage volunteering and involvement in social action, including launching a national ‘Big Society Day’ and making regular community involvement a key element of civil service staff appraisals.
  • We will take a range of measures to encourage charitable giving and philanthropy.
  • We will introduce a National Citizen Service. The initial flagship project will provide a programme for 16 year olds to give them a chance to develop the skills needed to be active and responsible citizens, mix with people from different backgrounds, and start getting involved in their communities.

3. Transfer power from central to local government

  • We will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government, including a full review of local government finance.
  • We will give councils a general power of competence.
  • We will abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils.

4. Support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises

  • We will support the creation and expansion of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises, and support these groups to have much greater involvement in the running of public services.
  • We will give public sector workers a new right to form employee-owned co-operatives and bid to take over the services they deliver. This will empower millions of public sector workers to become their own boss and help them to deliver better services.
  • We will use funds from dormant bank accounts to establish a Big Society Bank, which will provide new finance for neighbourhood groups, charities, social enterprises and other nongovernmental bodies.

5. Publish government data

  • We will create a new ‘right to data’ so that government-held datasets can be requested and used by the public, and then published on a regular basis.
  • We will oblige the police to publish detailed local crime data statistics every month, so the public can get proper information about crime in their neighbourhoods and hold the police to account for their performance.

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