I am still having trouble understanding exactly what Cameron means by the ‘Big Society’. I am really trying. I have read up on it on it’s own website and I looked on Wikipedia (doesn’t that count as substantial research?). I attended a debate last week at LSE (now available as a podcast and highly recommended) but just when I thought I had a grasp of the basic ideas, my thoughts take me down another path.
It is about increasing the ‘civic responsibility and civic responsiveness’ of communities. It is about communities taking more control of issues that affect them. It is about volunteerism and increasing social capital.
Or it is about cuts and replacing central and local government responsibilities with people willing to take part and take action.
It can’t just be about active volunteering communities. That is not a new idea.
Perhaps it is about payment for volunteering in different forms – the Japanese idea mooted by Burstow a few months back about helping older people with some care in order to ‘bank hours’ for ones own care in the future.
But there have been forms of time banks for years where someone might offer a hour of gardening in exchange for an hour of French tuition. That isn’t ‘new’.
Is there going to be more government money to promote the rolling out of the State? No.
Is there going to be any additional time to plough into some of the ideas which form the base of the ‘Big Society’ ideal? No.
I see a potential for social work to transform into more a community based profession. We have the potential as social workers. We know the areas we work in and we have a chance to see areas and people who would benefit from both input and volunteerism. Sometimes I wish I had a more ethereal role in building community capital.
One of the roles of my work is what I would see as ‘building systems of support around people who are isolated’ so I might look at what groups exist – self-help as well as more formal day centres and lunch clubs – I look around online as well as off-line groups. Given a little more flexibility to grow and facilitate (and then withdraw, if necessary) from these groups – I can see some worth in the idea of community building.
There is not much scope or time for these roles at the moment.
Earlier this week, Lord Nat Wei, who drives the Government’s Big Society agenda – ironically reduced the time he was able to spend on the project because he needed to spend his time, well, earning money and being with his family. On a human level that is completely understandable. I couldn’t give three days of my life up for voluntary work – it was, after all, a voluntary post.
But it is an indication of the difficulties that face the promises that have been made about the ‘Big Society’.
As discussed at the debate I attended, Big Society, is in danger due to demographics. Volunteers tend to be middle class and middle aged. There are ‘pet’ projects and charities. No doubt libraries in Surrey will do very well – but what about hostels in Brixton?
As if to emphasise this point, Liverpool, one of the ‘pilot’ areas for ‘Big Society’ pulled out yesterday with the leader of the council saying that when voluntary organisations are having their funding cut by reductions of grants to the council from central government, he is in no position to roll out the programme.
That leaves the pilot in a difficult and untenable place in my view. Liverpool was the ‘test site’ in a poorer, urban area. The other ‘test sites’ are
Eden in Cumbria – which by no means ‘richer’, is a large rural district. Arguably communities in small rural villages will be naturally more cohesive by the nature of geography. Now, last week, the MP who represents Eden was present at the debate – Rory Stewart. He was an engaging speaker but he seemed very focused on the rights of residents to have more control over planning applications and the building of affordable housing (a key issue in rural areas). Fine. That’s all well and good but it sounded as if these projects were run by the voices that shouted the loudest. That is my concern about the way the projects and the ‘Big Society’ will pan out.
Sutton in London is another test site for the Big Society. Sutton covers leafy suburban areas and the borders between London and Surrey. Sutton is focuses on citizens ‘having a say’ about transport in the borough. Hm. I wonder how that fits with bus services being cut throughout the country. See, we can’t quite get away from the cuts agenda. Sutton fits perfectly into the ‘middle aged middle class’ band of ‘volunteers’ who might have time to attend meetings about which bus service might go where.
In fact, as the website says
Sutton is one of only four local authorities announced as ‘Big Society Communities’ because it’s regarded as having one of the country’s most vibrant communities with a very active voluntary sector, plus a track record of devolving power to our neighbourhoods.
In other words, lets just do what we were doing anyway and call it ‘Big Society’. That’s one way of guaranteeing success, Cameron.
And the last ‘test site’ after the withdrawal of Liverpool?
The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. Ah, maybe the Queen – an erstwhile resident of the aforementioned borough – wanted a go at ‘Big Society’. Hardly a representative area on income bases and types of community though.
Well, she could certainly pump some additional money in her own local community.
Boys from Eton visiting elderly widows to ‘take tea’. Yes, that might be it.
No, I have it wrong, Big Society isn’t just about volunteering – it is about community groups taking collective action. But it does seem to fall into the ‘middle aged middle class’ demographic again where it is expected that people will have more leisure time to devote to community building.
Reading through the proposals for the Royal Borough, I see some worthy suggestions about residents having greater influence on budgetary decisions and ‘adopting a street, park or library’. See, libraries again. Who is going to adopt the libraries in Toxteth though?
Which brings me to Liverpool. The only ‘test area’ that I personally felt gave the pilot some credibility. The other areas are overwhelmingly mono-cultural. I had to check my figures there regarding Sutton – as a London Borough, but I maintain my position as I found that
the proportion of BME residents living in LB Sutton, at 15.2%, is
significantly lower than for the South West London Sub-Region (27.0%) and for London (33.6 %).
So while the government can point to a pilot project ‘in London’ – Sutton is hardly representative of London or the communities that live therein.
So maybe I have the Big Society all wrong. Maybe it isn’t about increasing volunteerism per se, as much as increasing participation. The problem is that whichever it is both participation and volunteerism need leisure time and in order for people to engage they need to feel engaged and that this idea – these ideas are ‘for them’.
I don’t want to dismiss all the ideas behind community building and grass-roots activism but this is nothing new and unfortunately the ‘Big Society’ label rests too heavily in the lap of this Conservative led government.
Liverpool was the chance for me to be proved wrong. How things worked in Liverpool would have more relevance to me and the communities I live and work in than how things worked in Sutton.
So the withdrawal of Liverpool from the project is very significant. Much more than the tittering about Lord Nat Wei’s ironic inability to have time to devote to the project.
I want live in communities that are actively engaged but then, you see, I think I already do. I don’t want to ‘take over’ my local library. It runs very well with professional library staff. As for planning permission – well, everything around here is built up to the max so there aren’t many decisions to be made.
For me, if I were let loose on the project it would be one about increasing social capital and engagement but working in different ways and using social networking but not only that because that would exclude those who don’t have the same access to computer services.
But for now, I see Big Society as pleasing those who shout the loudest. Everyone else and anyone with any issue that might impede their own motivation or participation – be that a disability, a mental illness, a frailty, a lack of time, an alienation from the ‘mainstream’, a language barrier, a cultural barrier – is at risk of being swept along by the wishes of the loudest rather than the majority.
At least local authorities have some kind of democratic mandate regarding the decisions they make. Groups of communities may have no such responsibility.
Just to finish with a quote from Nat Wei’s blog. He says
I have also recently been working on online and other tools to help establish a community of activists who can champion and help create Big Society where they live. More on this will follow in the coming months
And a word to Nat Wei. Isn’t that by definition, ‘top down’.
Where is this community online?
Someone in the comments mentioned that it is a closed site to invitees.
Surely the ideas could be open to a broader forum of any interested party so that concerns and yes, ideas, can be moved beyond those who work in policy planning or are directors of voluntary organisations. Where do I, or those like me, who have been working in communities for years, go with our ideas?
Maybe the Big Society is an opportunity to fragment. Maybe we find our own spaces in the virtual worlds to play out or ideas. Maybe the concept of the Big Society can be linked to the networked world we live in where trying to impose from above will always be doomed to failure.
Maybe, just maybe, we are seeing the Big Society in Egypt.
It uses twitter to network and build alliances and share ideas and it won’t be owned by the government.
Maybe it is grass roots activism which needs to take on the models of a new media but remain inclusive to those who lack access across the digital divide.
The sad thing is that I see a massive role for social work in building a more engaged society, just as the government seem set on destroying it and removing the bases and protections on which our civilised society has stood.