Simon Barrow

The 'Big Society' bubble is bursting

By Simon Barrow
February 10, 2011

The famed ‘Westminster bubble’ just got a bit more ethereal last week with the news that a major city council in England had ‘resigned’ (Financial Times) from David Cameron’s Big Society.

Hitherto, it hadn’t been evident that you could ‘quit’ (Reuters) a woolly concept, but the good people of Liverpool – or at least their elected leaders – proved everyone soundly wrong on that.

The council was one of four pilot authorities for a policy initiative to decentralise power and expand the voluntary sector – at the same time as both local government and third sector bodies are being subjected to unprecedented public spending cuts. That means losing £100 million as far as Liverpool is concerned.

Hitherto the Big Society idea has been cocooned in feel-good phraseology about “empowerment”, “citizen action” and “we’re all in this together”. Left to their own devices these are hardly new notions. But string them together, put them into a couple of magazine articles, boil them down to a repetitive sound-bite mantra, and hey presto, you have a new governing precept! Except that, according to a January 2011 YouGov opinion poll, 63 per cent of Britons still don’t know what it means, 68 per cent don’t believe it will work, and only 11per cent think it has any practical content.

To make things worse, one of the chief architects of Big Societydom, Lord Wei of Shoreditch (who was given a Conservative peerage last year, together with a desk in the Cabinet Office as the concept’s ‘tsar’) has announced that he’s had to scale back his own voluntary contribution. He’s found out that working for free three days a week is incompatible with ‘having a life’, seeing the family and paying the bills.

Cue ironic laughter from Liverpool, where the council leader has asked the Prime Minister, “How can [we] support the Big Society and its aim to help communities do more for themselves when we will have to cut the lifeline to hundreds of these vital, worthwhile groups?”

Other erstwhile believers have been parading their disillusion, too. TV producer Phil Redmond, well-known for the cohesive community that was Channel 4’s Brookside Close, told Local Government Chronicle magazine: “I went along with it all because I thought it would be a good way of getting things going, but it's been impossible to get any traction because of the cuts – everyone is dealing with post spending review trauma.”

None of this is too surprising to social care expert Malcolm Payne, who says that a friendly Big Society article on the Chartered Institute of Public Relations website “misses the point, because public relations people so often talk about image rather than reality.” The concept isn’t really woolly at all, he suggests. It mainly means getting ordinary people do the things government is unable or unwilling to pay for.

Community action, by contrast, “is about doing what the community wants,” avers Payne, “which I think the government is going to find will not be what it would like at all.”

Over to you again, Mr Cameron.


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from the February 2011 edition of Third Way, the magazine of Christian social and cultural comment, for which he writes the monthly 'Westminster Watch' column.

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