Monday, 21 March 2011

Is the Big Society failing to deliver?
Yes, says Gordon Morris.

posted on RSN Online

In July 2010, I put fingers to keyboard to explain why I had doubts about the "Big Society". I am still confused. I am also worried.

Rural England is characterised by smallness. Small villages, small towns, small councils, small businesses, small schools, and (mostly) small farm holdings. There are even a few small minds, although, in my experience at least, these are outnumbered, if not always out-voiced, by big hearts and plenty of community spirit. Some might even call rural England a big society in many local/small scale settings.

Yet, as the searches for the slippery definition of THE "Big Society", and the elusive definition of localism, continue, so it seems that existing and obvious examples of both are being ignored. So much of rural life is based on self-help and a willingness to help others. Every member of the WI, every youth leader (Brownies, Scouts, Cubs), every school governor, every deliverer of meals on wheels, every village hall management group member, every local member of a town or village plan committee, is a volunteer. Every Town and Parish Council (and most councillors are volunteers) is an example of "Big Society" localism in action, as are Neighbourhood and Farm Watch schemes, and the organizers of local sports leagues.

For all of the above, and probably for the many others I've missed, there are support organizations, from District and County Councils, various paid officials of charities and associations (eg county-based towns and parish council groups, and rural community councils).

Add to this community transport services, which often depend on volunteers, the local services provided by shops/post offices (although their viability is threatened by central government's desire to contract out various services that logically and socially "fit" these time-proven and still essential local service centres) and one wonders exactly what is missing from the current mix that the "Big Society" and localism will transform for the better?

I fear that any change will be for the worse.

Many familiar organizations, public and voluntary, are likely to be cut in one way or another. Their ability to provide for their local societies (big or small) will be diminished. Therefore, some services (including, no doubt, public transport, services/activities for young and old, the arts, and libraries) will disappear, unless other providers step into the breach. One can assume that the big outsourcing companies which already run large numbers of public services will not be interested in running one or two libraries, or arranging for someone to drive the local minibus, and so who will replace all those people who, up until now, have been paid (often not very much) to provide services such as these?

I fear the answer – the only answer – is that it will be the people who currently volunteer. Who else will be able to replace the people employed to help volunteers, or keep local democracy going, but more volunteers? It follows, for example, that neighbourhood plans drawn up by volunteers will then have to be implemented by self-help groups of volunteers. There is, unless I've missed something (and tell me if I have) a certain inevitable circularity to this.

After some months of trying I am still no closer to understanding how the new world will work. I'm beginning to think, however, that I understand the rationale behind it. It's as many people feared. It's about saving money, about cutting wage bills, about fragmentation, about some people losing their jobs, and other people being asked to do more for nothing; perhaps even about dividing and conquering - for will act for all these neighbourhood (whatever that means) groups when the professionals have gone?

What an irony if our rural - and urban – communities' societal strengths are the very things that are about to be used to justify weakening the links that exist between the public and other realms, and in so doing, in my view at least, help to weaken these very same strengths, at least in some vulnerable places lacking people with the skills, experience, money and time needed to provide local leadership and development.

Big Society? Big con? Big mistake? I wonder, am I missing the point? Please tell me if and why I'm wrong, because, if nothing else, we need to be prepared. Big Cuts start in April, even if the Big Society doesn't, and they will be local in nature and effect.

Gordon Morris is is a freelance writer, researcher and visiting lecturer in community development at Bournemouth University.
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