Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

May 31, 2011

The big society before Big Society

Storm clouds continue to gather over David Cameron’s Big Society. Last week’s poll suggests 78% of the country still don’t understand it. None of this is being helped by the fact that his Government is simultaneously hollowing out the budgets of those same organisations he has said should be Big Society standard bearers.  In last week’s Guardian, Polly Toynbee, makes the case that there’s nothing new about Big Society – citing the boldest initiative ever tried

Polly Toynbee, Guardian

On Monday, David Cameron will again try mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on his “big society”. It took another near-death blow from this week’s report by the Commission on Big Society, which found 78% of voters say they have no idea what it means. What began as a clever replacement of Margaret Thatcher’s notorious “no such thing as society” has eluded both popular imagination and real-life substance. Lord Wei, its standard bearer, has retreated somewhat. His inability to define it flummoxed officials, as he issued nothing but stirring anecdotes of good citizens – of whom, thankfully, there have always been many. The Third Sector Research Centre says a steady 25% of people volunteer at least once a month, with twice as many in prosperous areas.

But 5 May 2010 was Year Zero to Cameron’s government. Nothing good ever happened before, with nothing to learn from the last decade. Soviet-style, the past is eradicated. The very names of policies that worked well have been airbrushed from the record. For there is nothing new about the big society. Labour embraced communitarian ideas, influenced by Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone call for social capital in an atomised society, and with Richard Sennett’s call for mutual respect in poor communities. Neighbourhood renewal schemes were a hallmark of Labour policy, but you would think Labour’s “V” initiative for young volunteering or Volunteering England never existed.

Instead, here come the National Citizens Service and a new bank holiday for volunteering – though the commission’s report found 80% unlikely to use their day for community activity. Around 2,500 community organisers are to be trained – but the contract was carefully not given to Citizens UK because it is too good at this, and in danger of organising against the cuts. Meanwhile, Timebank, mobiliser of 300,000 volunteers, has been axed by civil society minister Nick Hurd – a great surprise. I chaired its 10th anniversary debate where Hurd praised it to the skies and tweeted a congratulation for “countering the cynicism of the big society”. But even it fell in the purge.

Next week I’m summoned to give evidence to the public administration select committee’s hearings on the big society. Of course, I’ll start by saying it’s A Good Thing: whose heart isn’t warmed by volunteers improving their own and others’ lives? But Cameron’s big society words are hollow when he strips the voluntary sector bare. Peter Kyle, acting head of Acevo, the charity CEOs association, says £1.4bn government funding has been cut from charities this year, rising to £3.1bn by 2013 – replaced with a paltry £100m “transition fund”. Thousands of applications rushed in and each charity had to prove it had suffered at least a 30% government cut.

In search of big society ideas, I will urge the committee to look at the New Deal for Communities, the boldest initiative ever tried. This week I visited Aston Pride, the NDC that topped the 39 schemes Labour created in the nation’s worst areas. Each was given about £50m to spend as local people chose over 10 years. That committed funding drew together communities weary of half-hearted previous attempts, always abandoned when money ran out. The 17,000 inhabitants of this multi-ethnic, high-unemployment patch of Birmingham had 17 often fractious mosques and six diverse churches, but slowly and with difficulty they came together and transformed the place.

A shabby, underused park was renewed, now with beautiful sports grounds; a local museum refreshed; a new health centre reaching people the NHS had neglected; schools springing to life through bringing headteachers together, funding equipment and giving a hot breakfast to every child. The main emphasis was on training and job-finding, with money skilfully levering in funds from other partners. The results were spectacular, with lower crime than the city average, school results and youth employment that rose faster, while antisocial behaviour fell. Small businesses were supported and hundreds of volunteers took qualifications.

Perfect? No. But the change is remarkable. When Aston Pride ended this March, local people were mortified at receiving no recognition, not even a junior official from Eric Pickles’s Department for Communities to visit, or a letter of praise for being the top NDC after all those years of giving so much and overcoming such obstacles. Simon Topman, a local manufacturer who took over the chair of Aston Pride after it ran into early trouble, expresses his disappointment, afraid that with all support gone, the area may start to slide back again.

But above all, he is indignant that the government does not want to learn how it was done. This really is the big society, creating new local champions, bringing people together in the hardest places, levering in outside help. Cameron would not like to know the truth: it only happened with money so local people could employ their own chosen professional support – and those things are not free. In Witney, people have time and money – but in places like Aston, with no resources, nothing happens. This is not a little light volunteering in the library – this is heavy-duty hard grind, often quarrelsome, and the people who made it work really are local heroes, whose own lives were changed. But that’s all erased from the record. All that hard-won experience in creating community is lost.

However, the big society can still sound great. David Brooks, the currently fashionable US guru, author of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement returned from a London visit to eulogise the big society in the New York Times on Friday. Though a journalist by trade, he seemed to have swallowed Cameron’s press handout whole, without inquiring into the truth of any of it. Just about every word of this short article is misleading (including views he attributes to me). He says: “The [big society] legislative package has been a success.” There is no such thing as yet. He praises Cameron for decentralising, for giving local communities money to “run things themselves” (what money?) and says “Cameron’s reforms are fostering the sorts of environments where human capital grows”. Where has he been to see that? He concludes, “No other government is trying so hard to tie public policy to the latest research into how we learn and grow.” Or, sadly, how we deliberately forget and shrink. Let’s hope New York Times readers are not so easily deceived by travellers’ fairytales – so far British public cynicism is rather better grounded.