Where now for the Big Society?

David Baker

If a Government policy is criticised from sources as diverse as the Economist and the Archbishop of Canterbury then it must be hard to know which way to turn. And so it is for the Big Society project. According to the Economist, a “sorry saga”, and to the Archbishop “all too often heard by many...as aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable”, does the Big Society have a meaningful future?   

Firstly, the evidence is mounting that some of Big Society’s initial assumptions were, at best, overly optimistic. Smaller government does not necessarily lead to a bigger society – it’s much more complicated than that. The voluntary sector is facing huge challenges and reductions in resources, especially in the most deprived areas - the very areas where local government is also in the greatest retreat (see these reports by Civil Exchange, New Philanthropy Capital and JRF.) 

In more general terms, life is getting harder for a lot of those less fortunate in Britain today, whether they are in or out of work - see for example this report by Oxfam. If the Big Society is going to be meaningful then, the important question is not whether there’s a general feeling of good will and street parties in leafy suburbs, but what will emerge through the storm of recession, reduced capacity in the public and voluntary sector and the impact of changes to the welfare system in the poorest areas hardest hit by these factors.

The answer to this question is of course about where, if anywhere, alternative resources might come from (a subject for another day), but it is also about leadership. The Big Society has a big problem with leadership. Of all government programmes (if that’s what it is) it’s the one that can least be driven from Whitehall; but on the other hand the government is accused of having no clear strategy or an abdication of moral leadership. It appears set up to fail.   

One thing the Big Society may do, however, is open up leadership space for others who do have a more compelling vision for society. And this is desperately needed, as the public sector mourns the former years of ever greater resources and initiatives, and the established voluntary sector also faces painful downsizing – all at a time when demands on them are increasing significantly.         

So where is this new leadership happening and what could it look like? In my view, it is the faith-based sector where there is the most potential. There are some dangers of course, and it will not be to everyone’s taste, but it is faith-based organisations that, among others, have been ‘doing big society’ for hundreds of years - not that they’d want to be co-opted into any particular government’s programme. 

As one example, my own church called Restore Community (the name hopefully tells its own story), has opened a community centre in a bleak post-war shopping strip serving a large, isolated housing estate.  Restore has a vision to take a bigger role in looking after the local community, at least in part because there is no one else who is. There are few other services locally, and for that reason the local council is delighted that someone is doing something in a ‘problem’ area. Partially staffed by local volunteers, there’s a programme of events and services including IT training, money management, an art group, a toddler club, drug and alcohol advice, mediation and a job club, some of which is run by staff from other agencies using the centre as a base for outreach. None of this is unique and there are similar initiatives all over the country. But this is one example of real leadership, action and vision coming from outside public sector, with the local council to their credit supporting and working with it.   

So my view is that even if the Big Society as a political programme is (necessarily) lacking in content, full of contradictions and undermined by other policies, out in the real world it is happening and may in fact be on the increase. But this is not for the rose-tinted reasons Government ministers may originally envisaged and only to a small extent because of specific policies to enable it. It is primarily happening because it always has, forged out of necessity in the midst of social and economic challenges, and as a response to poverty, isolation and disadvantage. And that’s as important now as it’s ever been. As for whether it will, or can ever be, enough – we’ll have to come back to that one.

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