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A bad week for the Big Society?

5 February 2011

12:36 PM

5 February 2011

12:36 PM

We all know that journalists hunt in packs and now they are circling around the Big
Society. Lord Wei’s decision to restrict his volunteering to two days a week and the announcement that Liverpool City Council has withdrawn from a “Big Society” pilot have been
used to suggest that the idea is dead before it has been fully articulated.

This would be a shame. The emergence of the Big Society has coincided with a revival of interest in the co-operative movement and mutualism. And thoughtful figures on the left, such as Jon Cruddas
and Hazel Blears, have already begun to work on a Labour Party response.

But there is already a growing suspicion that the government may be losing its nerve on the Big Society or, worse, that it really didn’t mean it in the first place.

The RSA’s Matthew Taylor has suggested on his blog that the concept is ripe for
takeover from the left, and he is right to identify Lambeth’s proposals for a “Co-operative Council” as a potentially exciting proposition. The London local authority plans to
mutualise libraries, adventure playgrounds and even housing and regeneration.

I am yet to be entirely convinced that the Coalition has a  genuine passion for its own creation. Matthew puts it well:

“Coalition supporters who are also advocates of Big Society thinking face a massive – and probably unbridgeable – credibility gap. For the next two years many of those
things they say they are most value will be undermined by the Government which they support. They can, of course, argue that the Big Society offers the best way of respond to the cuts in publicly
funded social infrastructure, but for the charities and their clients this is a bit like a small member of a gang offering you some ointment after a big member of the gang has just kicked

This sounds harsh, but it is possibly more serious than that.

It could turn out that the very mechanisms the government have put in place to reform public services may end up making it more difficult for charities and the voluntary sector to find a role for
itself. The Coalition must be very, very careful if it is to retain credibility in this area. Devolving delivery to large service companies such as Serco and G4S is nothing new (although they will
dominate every aspect of our lives like never before). But will anything really cascade further down the food chain and into the Big Society under this system?

It may well be the case that Lambeth Council’s attempts to do this stand a greater chance of success precisely because it will be driven by a desire to make  local democracy work better
rather than the commercial imperative.

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