Whose big society is it anyway?

Now that the Coalition, led by human wrecking ball in chief Eric Pickles, has finished tearing down the last vestiges of regional government by removing the regional government offices they’re turning their attention to what will take their place.

And guess what folks; it’s that panacea for all society’s ills, the “Big Society”…. again.

Eric’s Department of Communities and Local Government has published it’s very own structural reform plan; the document that sets out the department’s new rasion d’etre; “Making localism and the big society part of everyday life.”

So it seems when Eric isn’t stomping around in his hard hat demolishing Quangos, he’s going to be using that hammer to hammer out the gospel of the big society. In recognition of this Eric has been made joint chair of the government’s big society ministerial committee, taking his place alongside Francis Maude, after all its going to take a big man to build the big society.

The structural reform plan sets out a series of reforms to deliver localism agenda and support the big society, with a big focus on getting rid of those horrible rules and regulations that force local authorities to fill out forms about how many people they employ to fill out the forms they have to fill out to satisfy the latest government directive about form filling. Instead local councils, and communities, that’s us by the way, will be liberated from this paper based oppression and allowed to rule ourselves using common sense.

This involves increasing local council’s independence by cutting the inspection and guidance regime including the Comprehensive Area Assessment and devolving greater control over local spending by phasing out ring fencing for high performing councils. There are also plans for 12 directly elected city mayors, proposals to give local residents the power to institute referendum on any local issues and extremely vague pledges to let local community groups take over the running of local public services.

This big society check list is not a coherent vision or set of policies, it is a pick mix of familiar sound bites and easy sentiments; anti-state, anti-bureaucracy and greater efficiency all timeless aspirations for every incumbent government, including the previous administration.

And from these meagre acorns will the tree of the big society grow? Well no because that’s not how grass roots work. While volunteers and charities can do fantastic work they can’t do it for free and are often dependent on contracts to deliver services or local authority grants for their premises, their part time staff, to pay the bills. The Coalition knows this, but the big society is not about expanding the New Labour formula of increasing government funding to the voluntary sector to deliver public services. Instead there will be the double impact of spending cuts as council services get cut, followed by the disappearance of charities that support people who relied on that state support.

 It’s all part of how the coalition envisages the big society, it’s not about altering models of state support, it’s about self reliance of groups that are independent and self financing, untainted by financial reliance on the state. Think of the big society as a village fete, locally organised by those with requisite social capital to do a bit of fund raising and a bit of do gooding, all under the patronage of the great and the good of the shire.

This is most clearly articulated in their plans for a mini army of 5000 self sustaining community organisers, who will train local people to… errm probably clean up parks and that, but hopefully they won’t get around to organising their communities to protest against cuts to huge job losses and closure of vital services.

In practice the big society is an idea that can only be defined negatively, and the only thing Coalition Minister’s seem to agree on is that it’s not the state. So to make room for the big society the state must be rolled back, and this has major implications for the state at the local level where the big society must be seen in the context of huge, and if the Conservatives get their way, permanent, public spending that will decimate local council services.

To ensure the big society is effective window dressing for compassionate conservatism it has to be everything to all people everywhere. This pandering is perfectly captured by David Cameroon every time he opens his mouth on the subject, like in Liverpool recently where he offered this precise definition.

“You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society.”

Well you probably shouldn’t Dave, because it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. “Give me big society or give death” or “big society, equality and fraternity.” I don’t think so.


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