Reality check for the Big Society

By Niall Cooper
February 10, 2011

This has not been a good week for the Big Society: As the impact of cuts are starting to bite on local communities, charity and council leaders are increasingly calling into question whether the Government’s ‘Big Society’ vision will survive.

Ten months ago, David Cameron set out the Conservatives’ vision for ‘A Big Society not Big Government.’ According to Cameron: “It is a guiding philosophy, a society where the leading force for progress is social responsibility, not state control. It includes a whole set of unifying approaches – breaking state monopolies, allowing charities, social enterprises and companies to provide public services, devolving power down to neighbourhoods, making government more accountable. And it’s the thread that runs consistently through our whole policy programme – our plans to reform public services, mend our broken society, and rebuild trust in politics.”

But this week it started to look like Cameron’s guiding philosophy was starting to come up against the harsh realities of life in austerity Britain.

Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, head of leading volunteering charity, CSV, hit the media headlines on 7 February 2011, saying that the government’s spending cuts are “destroying” volunteering and undermining its “big society” vision.

Julian Dobson - co-founder of New Start magazine and astute commentator on the state of the voluntary sector - pulled no punches either, writing in his blog that: “The government-propagated big society story has stumbled drunkenly from blunder to gaffe as ministers and their supporters proclaimed a new era of community empowerment and then proceeded to remove from communities exactly what they need in order to play an equal part in society: jobs, opportunities and basic services.”

This followed Liverpool City Council’s announcement last week that is withdrawing from the government’s Big Society initiative, which was designed to give communities and charities control of some public services. Liverpool had been chosen as one of four pilot areas for the project. But last month it announced 1,500 jobs would go following government spending cuts.

Meanwhile, over in Manchester, Labour council leader Sir Richard Leese has warned residents that government cuts to essential services will hit the poorest hardest as the council seeks to save £109m this year. A swathe of leisure centres, youth centres, Surestart centres, libraries and public toilets will close – many of them in the poorest neighbourhoods in the city.

It may be too soon to say that Big Society is dead – with some Big Society announcements in the pipeline – with proposals to train 5,000 Community Organisers, and the creation of a Big Society Bank among them.

What is clear, is that we are only now starting to see the true impact of cuts on local communities and community groups – cuts that will have profound impacts for years to come. But amidst all the doom and gloom, some still see grounds for optimism.

Toby Blume, head of Urban Forum, for one. He believes that: “The resilience and strength of community groups never fails to amaze and inspire me. Communities, even those too readily written off as ‘failing’, have an incredible capacity to bounce back from shock and crisis. And I am confident the community sector will innovate and adapt in the face of adversity.”

For the sake of millions in the poorest communities across the country – if not for the sake of the Big Society – let’s hope he’s right.


(c) Niall Cooper has been National Coordinator of Church Action on Poverty ( since 1997. He regularly speaks on church and poverty issues on radio and TV, and has written for a number of national publications. His blog, from which this is adapted with acknowledgement and thanks, can be found at:

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