So here we have the phrase that Cameron wanted to become a catchphrase during the election but somehow got lost possibly due to public indifference. However, now it’s back to bite.
Cameron launched his ‘Big Society’ initiative a couple of days ago. He uses all the right language of course. It is about a devolution of power and influence over local matters from central government to smaller communities.
As he said in his speech in Liverpool
‘The big society … is about liberation – the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street,”
Sounds great so far. As for the details as well as giving some examples of this ‘Big Society’ in action, for example, people in Cumbria buying their own local pub or Liverpudlians opening up some museum services with volunteers.
The idea seems to be to open up the spirit of philanthropy and volunteerism. Money from ‘dormant bank accounts’ will be used to fund some of these projects and plans.
I was sceptical during the election campaign and I remain sceptical now.
Firstly, I am a great fan of voluntary work and voluntary services. I have been directly involved in many voluntary projects and personally developed my own career extensively based on experience as a volunteer. I love it.
But, and this is a big but, I was able to volunteer as my personal financial circumstances at that period of time allowed it. I was in a fortunate enough position to be able to self-fund the work I did as a volunteer.
Is volunteering a luxury then? Not necessarily – those were my own personal circumstances but I am well aware of many many people who manage to work full-time/run a household and find time to input directly into voluntary services. Maybe it’s just me that wouldn’t have the time and energy to do so but I wonder if there is a whiff of middle class morality about it all. Not in all cases, but the example of the pub being bought out by locals certainly seems to pitch the community at a certain level of income.
My other concern is one that relates both to the area I work in and the area I live in. This is as inner-city as it gets. There are some very strong community groups who could easily gain ground both by being active in particular pockets and having the time to invest in the structures of this new ‘big society’ programme that would perhaps, disadvantage minority groups living in areas where there are large homogenous majority communities.
The other concerns relate to reliance on the third sector – this point has been raised in The Guardian . It’s obvious why the government would like to place hopes in the voluntary sector. Often voluntary groups can be ‘closer to the ground’ but do they have more authority that local government? It might be a cheaper way to run things. Currently – and I’m referring to the sectors I am personally aware of – the local authority might well commission local charities to do pieces of work for them or provide services – the Alzheimer’s Society provide day centre support and carers groups for example and receive funding from the local authority. Local authorities are cutting down on spending and the money may come from these ‘big society’ projects from central government funding – oops, I mean ‘dormant bank accounts’ (by the way, is there REALLY that much money in these dormant bank accounts… ).
To the charitable sector, the funding may be cut from one source to be granted at another. Who is better placed to decide which local services are needed or required and what will be the bid process for these charities? The reason I am concerned is that I’ve seen some rather bogus organisations with charitable status – particularly religious groups to be honest. That concerns me.
I don’t want to be cynical about all these wonderful goals. I am a great fan of community work and working within communities. I am just concerned that some of the minority sectors and opinions might be missed in a bidding process for funding for grand ideas.
I really want to be proved wrong though.
It is a question of whether the conception of ‘Big Society’ will work as well in Tower Hamlets as in Tunbridge Wells? Hopefully the Liverpool pilot will be the proof of the pudding..