The Big Society?

The idea of 'The Big Society' appeared in the Conservative Party Manifesto for the 2010 election. The DCLG website describes it as 'the Government's vision of a society where individuals and communities have more power and responsibility, and use it to create better neighbourhoods and local services' (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2010a). The then Minister of State described it as having three elements: 'what the state can do for us … what we can do for ourselves … and … what we can do for others' (Clark, 2010). This relates closely to those aspects of the Localism Act which encourage communities, individuals and associations to take responsibility for support and services previously undertaken by the local government. The government was somewhat slow to follow this initiative up, possibly because the key advisor pushing this agenda left the government. However, subsequently it was followed up by a number of specific developments. A sum of money was to be set aside to employ for one year 'community organisers' whose job it was to co-ordinate community activity and community volunteers. When first announced in a pre-election speech by David Cameron, this was widely criticised by the Taxpayers Alliance (Wilcox, 2010). Subsequently, the 'Big Society Network' was created 'to work with business, philanthropy, charities and social ventures' (Big Society Network, 2010). On 19 July 2010, the Prime Minister announced the intention to create four 'Big Society Vanguard Areas'. They were Liverpool, Eden Valley (Cumbria), Windsor and Maidenhead and Sutton (London), although Liverpool subsequently dropped out of the scheme (Mason, 2011). They would focus on removing 'bureaucratic barriers' such as 'unnecessary planning regulations', 'restrictions on local involvement in decision making' and 'excessive form filling' (Cameron, 2010). Finally, there was the Big Society Bank, subsequently re-launched as 'Big Society Capital', which made its first investments to 12 organisations in September 2012 (BBC website, 2012). It uses money taken from dormant bank accounts and by 2013 had £119 million in funds. This is expected to grow to about £600 million over the next five years. However, it cannot directly invest in social enterprises but has to channel its funds through intermediaries. Also, there appears to be no overlap between Big Society Capital and the Big Society network.

Many of our interviewees were keen on community engagement and volunteering but were uncertain how the idea of the Big Society was relevant. 'It is a common view that Big Society has always been there. People are doing what they are doing. That is Big Society'(3rd Sector CEO); 'There is a vast amount of volunteering … Most people are involved in some kind of voluntary activity outside the home … All of that enhances the quality of people's lives' (3rd Sector CEO); 'We have all been doing the Big Society for decades in the sense that people are doing good within the community, identifying things that need
doing and providing facilities that need running, and have been getting on with the job' (Local Authority Mayor); 'There were lots of examples where people give their time … These are things that are already being done but I think what they are trying to do is to build up that sense of community' (local business CEO); 'I think it is a repackaging of an old concept. You know, community engagement' (Local Authority Leader); 'A lot of what is intended … is happening already on the ground and a lot of the government-speak about Big Society, devolving power to local communities, is something that was happening maybe 3, 4, 5 years ago' (Local Authority Leader); 'Our colleagues and our local communities and our local citizens have been doing Big Society and our faith communities have been doing it for a long period of time and there is quite a bit of scepticism around there that actually it is another way of transferring the impact of cuts … The profile was being raised anyway without Big Society' (Core City Local Authority Director).

Some saw it as a political ploy, an attempt to 'detoxify' the Conservative party. 'It is kind of funny that a Conservative Government is trying to push the idea that we all need to care about others rather than ourselves. It makes me smile a little' (local business CEO); 'Personally I hate that sort of term being adopted by the Conservative Party. It is akin to Margaret Thatcher quoting St Francis when she got in. It makes me very uncomfortable … [also] I think funding being allocated to the Big Society is not helpful because I think that that is more likely to go to nice villages' (Assistant Mayor).

Yet others complained that it was simply too unconsidered and ill-defined. 'It is an idea that stems primarily from David Cameron himself. It reminds me very much of Tony Blair in this respect. Both tend to have a big idea where they have not really worked out for themselves what it means' (3rd Sector CEO); 'To give something a big fancy and simple title, it is for him [Cameron] to define to us what he means. I don't think he's done that and there is certainly no great desire on our part to leap in and solve that one for him. The reality is that we have always had a voluntary sector … and we have always been very supportive of it. That's not going to change now' (Local Authority Director); 'I don't talk about 'Big Society'. I don't use that term. If you use it people look at you as though you are a creature from outer space' (Local Authority Leader); '[People] see it as a big con. The Government just wants everyone to work for nothing. Volunteer for nothing and do the same as they did before without being paid for it' (3rd Sector CEO).

However, its impact on Local Authorities services and how they would be delivered was seen as a serious issue. One of our interviewees felt that although 'powers are moving away from Whitehall to local governance' they worried about 'how that has been translated to community or grassroots level' (3rd Sector CEO); 'The reality', they felt, 'is that it is local authorities that will decide how much that they give' (3rd Sector CEO). One Local Authority CEO believed the future of his council was as a commissioner of services buying services from various organisations which might include communities, though the expectation was that most of these would be commercial. 'What we are trying to do is to become a perfectly formed but small state government' (Local Authority CEO). However, the four local authorities so far which have attempted to act solely as commissioning agents are all reported either to have failed, with resignations from political leaders or Local Authority CEOs, or are doing badly (Booth, 2012).

The lack of coherence of national government actions was another criticism. 'I think [the Localism Bill ] is an example of the general lack of coherence in much of the policies of the Coalition so it depends which department you ask about what defines localism … I think what we are seeing … there is increasing recognition by most of those departments that they can't actually by-pass local government' (Local Authority CEO). One Assistant Mayor contrasted his own traditional understanding of community with that of the Big Society. 'What it appears to mean to others is … getting volunteers to do things wherever possible so that you don't have to pay for them … raising the expectations of citizens that they are important and special [in order] to challenge “Councils etc” and the third thing, worse than ever, is that they seem to be paying people to recruit people to train people in cities to do jobs that are already being done by Councils and Parishes and others who have been on the go and understood the need for this … It is as though the wheel was being reinvented but people have been doing it anyway. Sorry' (Local Authority Assistant Mayor).

Whilst part at least of the Coalition's intention through the idea of 'The Big Society' has been that the 3rd Sector engage with the Localism agenda, even to the point of providing services for local authorities, research by False Economy (2011) based on freedom of information requests reported that £110 million in funds would be lost to charities in 2011 because of reductions in Local Authority resources. Although the Public Services White paper offered a generous extra

£2 million to charities (Public Services 2011), False Economy claimed that this would actually be halved as a result of Local Authority cuts. While other sources of future funding have been promised (Rural Services Network On-Line, 2011) the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations claims that 'charities are instead going to the wall because of cuts and you cannot magic them back into existence again' (Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisation website). A survey by the Charities Aid Foundation (2011) reported that one in six charities expected to have to cut services or jobs. The CEOs of three of the Voluntary Organisations that we interviewed in 2011 had lost all their staff since 2010 and taken massive pay cuts themselves; even so, they were expecting to close within the year because of lack of funds. Another 3rd Sector CEO emailed us to say: 'the Big Society has failed.' Indeed, its performance has been criticised even from within government, with the Cabinet Office terminating one contract, called the 'Get In' project, in December 2012 (Boffey, 2013).

Not surprisingly, then, our 3rd Sector interviewees and others were very concerned about the consequences for Voluntary Organisations and the like: '[Big Society] I'd love to know what it is … The fundamental problem I have with Big Society and the Localism stuff is that it is all well and good but then why chop all of the Voluntary and Community Sector budgets that go with it if they are the launch pad of the Big Society? That is the philosophical thing that I struggle to
understand' (Local Authority Economic Developer); 'I think it is a nice phrase but the reality is that in a recession when you are cutting public spending the Voluntary Sector is going to go back as much as the public sector' (Local Authority CEO). Some feared that those with experience and those who genuinely represented needy communities would be left out. 'As to genuine participative engagement, well, even if there is a willingness to do so, they [the voluntary and community bodies] ain't got the skills to be able to do it' (3rd Sector CEO); 'If they don't get a diversity of organisations hosting community organisers, they won't get a diversity of volunteers. And this is what I can't see, how, when everybody is a volunteer, what structures are going to bring people together' (3rd Sector CEO); 'The Big Society means the people with the big money and the big resources are sailing off into the sunset while the citizens are losing their houses and their jobs and are paying the bills, basically. That's what it means to me. Because it doesn't involve little people' (3rd Sector CEO). Finally, there was the downright abusive. 'Big Society is a load of bullshit said by an over-rich man … who hasn't got a clue of how communities work. The Big Society is in fact me and my mate … Yes, the Big Society, the way he talks about it is about communities doing things for themselves. And people are doing that. But at the same time, wider support networks are supported through the public sector. So for him to talk about the Big Society whilst slashing investments to charities and to community groups is actually undermining that' (local politician).

At the community level there has also been a pioneering budgeting scheme launched by the Coalition Government in 2012 in 14 areas, four of which – Cheshire West and Cheshire, Essex, Greater Manchester and West London – were to be 'showcase areas. It is as yet too early to tell if these might have more success both in giving additional power to communities and in saving money, but the leader of Westminster Council was quoted as saying that her council could save up to £5bn every year by introducing greater local freedoms (Marsh, 2013).

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