Tuesday, March 8, 2011 - 15:15
Does my Society look Big in this..?


Ray Georgeson

Since the Coalition Government took office and the Prime Minister’s notion of the ‘Big Society’ started to become a policy reality, there have been countless column inches and conferences devoted to the examination of this idea.  Taken at face value, it is a powerful idea – the notion that people in communities can and should exercise more control over what happens in their community and that it shouldn’t always be the case that the state is seen as the provider of all services and activity that shape a community and the lives of individuals and families.

Many would say that the countless voluntary and community organisations that do sterling work have delivered the Big Society for years – whether they be the volunteers that run the local football team, community composting group or meals on wheels, they have just got on with it – sometimes with modest sums of money from local or central government and agencies.  However, the Government seems to be advocating Big Society as a much deeper and permanent change in the way that communities are organised, which is part of why the debate continues.

Critics suggest that it is a smokescreen for the downward step-change in local state service provision that the Government is pursuing through reductions in centrally allocated local government spending and that the emergence of newly energised community organisers and groups will somehow step in to fill the gaps in provision.   It’s fair to say there are plenty of sceptics.

Despite this, there has been a long queue of analysts, think-tankers, quango and government agency chiefs, leaders of charities and community sector groups all stating their willingness to ‘embrace the Big Society’.  In a spirit of willingness to suspend my cynicism until proven right, I have done the same!

However, I wonder if the cracks are starting to open even before the policy is fully formed?  Liverpool City Council very publicly pulled out of their ‘Vanguard’ project with government, citing public spending cuts as an impossible hurdle to overcome.  The retiring head of Community Service Volunteers, the redoubtable Dame Elisabeth Hoodless fired a salvo over the head of the Prime Minister, suggesting that the policy was unworkable.  Even the Governments’ own ‘Big Society tsar’ Lord Wei recently announced he was reducing his voluntary hours in his post as he ‘had to earn a living’.  Oh, the irony.

My interest in waste and recycling started as a volunteer collector in the early 1980s and I still celebrate the value of community involvement in waste. Community and voluntary groups in waste did pioneering work in the 1970s and 1980s on kerbside collection of recyclables, now a commercial activity.  Today they do pioneering work in re-use, composting and waste prevention.  Smart local authorities are getting better at mobilising the power of their local community groups in these activities and the country will be poorer for it if this work withers on the vine for want of modest amounts of finance to support the real Big Society in action and those national support networks that help make it happen.

No doubt the Prime Minister is still surrounded by folk who, when asked the proverbial question whilst he is in front of the mirror: ‘does my society look big in this?’ are still replying ‘yes, Prime Minister’.  Perhaps they have their fingers firmly crossed.

Edited version published in CIWM Journal, March 2011   www.ciwm.co.uk