Guest post: “Big Society – small state?”
By Ben Brangwyn 1st September 2010
Guest posting from Jules Peck
As many of us struggle to get to grips with this somewhat ambiguous concept, Jules examines some of the historical context, looks at the threats and potential opportunities this programme presents. He also suggests some tough questions that are going to have to be answered before we can really figure out if Big Society might become something that really works for us.
You can also read the original article at Jules’ blog site.
Thanks Jules. Ben Brangwyn
Big Society – Small State?
by Jules Peck on 27,August, 2010
Countering Margaret Thatcher’s famous declaration, David Cameron has asserted that “there is such a thing as society”. His vision for this society is based on his Big Society programme of “social action, public service reform and community empowerment… a shift from state action to social action”.
His concept of the Big Society makes a distinct break, at least rhetorically, with the individualist neo-liberal model of the Thatcher era. And its success rests, to a large degree, on the abilities and energy of citizens, communities and the third sector. Citizen Renaissance Movements like Transition Towns (of which I am a great fan) would argue that they have been active in building a Big Society for years.
In giving her support to the Transition Towns community initiative, Theresa May MP reinforced the party’s’ appeal to citizen and community-centric values saying “This is an interesting initiative aimed at getting communities to come together to think seriously about how they can at grass roots level plan for the future and start to make the changes that will be needed.” And a good friend of mine, Transition Towns Chairman Peter Lipman, has also met Big Society Network Chairman Lord Wei at his request to discuss how the Government’s policies and rhetoric can support Transition Towns. This is all very positive and I know that many of us involved in Transition are interested to see in what way the new Government are willing to support their work.
However, it is important to ask what role Conservatives see for the state in supporting and empowering this? We know that Cameron and most Tories are ideologically anti-state. Cameron has gone on from the above to say “it’s just not the same thing as the state”. Their view is that the state needs to roll back and allow society to roll forwards. But this raises a number of questions. Firstly, what support will the state be willing to give citizens, communities and the third sector in their work on community? And secondly, what roles will the state play in removing neoliberal market barriers to community flourishing?
The role of the state in supporting community flourishing
On this first point, we have seen that the Big Society programme includes things like; reforming planning to give neighbourhoods more ability to determine the shape of their communities, powers to help communities save local facilities and services, training a new generation of community organisers and supporting the creation of neighbourhood groups, supporting the creation and expansion of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises, and using funds from dormant bank accounts to establish a Big Society Bank, which will provide new finance for neighbourhood groups, charities, social enterprises and other nongovernmental bodies.
This all sounds positive and maps well against many of the things Transition and other citizen and community groups are doing around the country already. Indeed extra powers and funds for Transition and other community groups will be welcomed. But will this come with strings attached and a demand that the Government has a say in what is specifically intended to be a grassroots deliberative and democratic movement co-created by citizens themselves?
The role of the state in removing barriers to community flourishing
As Green Alliance CEO Stephen Hale has said “The neo-liberal version of Conservatism that has had such a strong influence on American and British Conservative thinking over the past thirty years has proven very environmentally destructive. It has promoted ‘market forces’ to the detriment of communities and family life. It has tended to foster economic growth without a proper regard for the environment, and to be reluctant to intervene in imperfect markets. There are notable exceptions of course, but the dominant underlying ideology has led to irreversible environmental damage.”
Amongst a host of other issues for which there is no space here, such neoliberalism includes a dogmatic fear of an appropriate, facilitating role for the state. So what of the role of the state in supporting the strengthening of community?
Let’s take Conservatives at their word and see what they have said on this. Andrew Tyrie MP writes this “Our success will partly be measured by the extent to which we can convince the public that reining back the intrusiveness of the state under a conservative government will not lead to the atrophy of community. The state will nonetheless discharge important obligations in supporting communities, institutions and individuals, but not always from the centre.”
Cameron has also been clear that there is a role for the state in supporting community “we achieve progressive aims through decentralising responsibility and power to individuals, communities and civic institutions. The task of Government is to create the environment in which the social norms and institutions which enable reciprocity can flourish.”
Oliver Letwin agrees with this “[Personal freedoms] can indeed only be achieved through ‘collective action’. They all need action from government… But much of that action has to work through family and community and social enterprise – essential ingredients of safer streets and of the escape from poverty… Thatcher wanted to roll back the frontiers of the state. Brown wants to roll forward the frontiers of the state. Cameron wants to roll forward the frontiers of society.”
And so does David Willetts “[F]ree market economics, like patriotism, is not enough… the conservative tradition placed as much importance on our shared values and our sense of community as it did on the role of private property and free markets. The task of Government is to create the environment in which the social norms and institutions which enable reciprocity can flourish.” Finally, ResPublica’s Philip Blond is quite clear that Compassionate Conservatism needs to repudiate neoliberalism and shift to Conservative values which are “socially conservative but sceptical of neo-liberal economics”.
All well and good, some of the leading players in the Government seem to be saying that there is a role for the state in empowering community flourishing. This rhetoric is all very well. But often what has come hand in hand with a neoliberal free market approach has been a strong belief in low taxation, especially for the wealthy, and in cuts in the size, nature and extent of the welfare state.
Heading in the wrong direction?
No one will have missed a parallel agenda of another leading player in the Government and his massive spending cuts. Economist David Blanchflower has said that Osbornes pre-election commitments to massive spending cuts, now being delivered in power “amounts to a declaration of class war”.
The Big Society programme has a series of policies which invoke and encourage the strengthening of community. However, it is not yet clear whether these efforts will be undermined by the spending cuts agenda which could threaten to do great damage to communities and Britain’s poorest citizens.
Some of the cuts threatened will have significant impacts on social justice and communities. One example includes more than 400,000 vulnerable citizens, including pensioners and victims of domestic violence, possibly being in line to lose their homes and see care entitlement scrapped if the Treasury carries out its threat to cut 40% from the £1.6bn ‘Supporting People’ Programme. Other likely cuts include things like Sure Start, the Future Jobs Fund, the scrapping of free school meals for 500,000 low-income families, the free swimming scheme for children and pensioners, the Future Jobs Fund, the Child Trust Fund, the freezing of child benefit, the cut in housing benefit and the VAT rise. All of these may well act to hollow society out from the centre and mean it is far less able to focus time and energy on grassroots change.
A recent report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (interestingly the previous employer of Osborne’s main advisor Rupert Harrison) shows clearly that the spending cuts agenda will hit the poorest in society hardest. The report concluded “Once all of the benefit cuts are considered, the tax and benefit changes announced in the emergency Budget are clearly regressive as, on average, they hit the poorest households more than those in the upper middle of the income distribution in cash, let alone percentage, terms.”
There are also real concerns also that a reliance on the third sector and on private companies is both lacking in accountability and likely to fall short of the gap created by cut backs in state support for communities, their infrastructures and their services. Many third sector organisations get significant proportions of their funds from local councils.
As these councils are now being forced to cut up to 30% of their expenditures, this will hit the third sector’s ability to deliver on Cameron’s Big Society vision. Services such as after-school clubs, play schemes, domestic violence charities, rape crisis centres, parenting programmes, projects to tackle youth crime, and support schemes for isolated older people are all threatened by these cuts. With other donations falling as a result of the recession and this to continue to worsen with the VAT rise in January; many third sector organisations are very worried.
Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, has said “Small scale community activity is fundamentally important to civil society. It depends on small grants, and if these are wiped out this will remove the very support structures that community groups depend on and undermine the big society.” Likewise Stephen Bubb, CEO of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, said the cuts meant the government would struggle to “close the gap between its heady rhetoric and current reality. It’s just like the 1980s. Charities are seen as the easy target.”
Stephen Cook, Editor Third Sector has echoed this saying “The mantra of ‘doing more with less’ will be carved on the doorway of more and more voluntary groups. In these circumstances it is increasingly important that we hear more about the big society from the government than pious rhetoric and the gnomic utterances of Lord Wei.” And Toby Blume, CEO of UrbanForum has said “The credibility of the Big Society is significantly undermined by the impact of economic policy on charities and voluntary groups, as announcements of cuts to funding emerge on an almost daily basis.”
Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd MP has responded to these challenges saying “There is clearly a significant risk to the Big Society agenda,” and that he will be telling other ministers to “think about the impact on the local and voluntary sector” and “make sure the state minimises the damage.”
Conclusion and questions for the Big Society
So this raises a few questions which the Big Society really must answer. Will support for citizen/community initiatives come with Government strings attached? Or will Government recognise that a key element in the success of grassroots initiatives like Transition is that they are ‘of the people and for the people’. And that they are based on participative democracy and emergent properties of citizens flourishing within their own communities. In short not things which Government should seek to influence.
And most importantly of all, how will the Government ensure that the current spending cuts regime does not completely undermine all their fine talk of rolling forwards a Big Society?
About the author
Jules was for two years Director of David Cameron’s Quality of Life Policy Group, advising the Conservative Party on wellbeing and environment issues. A committed Citizen, he has spent the past 20 years advising business, NGOs and government institutions on sustainability issues and Wellbeing. In a varied career Jules has worked in on environmental issues in Brussels at the EC, in the US and EU in marketing and public affairs roles with a number of companies and internationally for WWF as a Global Policy Adviser.
Jules’s recent publications include: Blueprint for a Green Economy (2007), Let Them Eat Cake (2006), Hope and Glory (2008).