Big Society or a good society?

THE trend, where trendy political soundbites become a substitute for substantive policy, is exemplified by the growing row over the “Big Society” advocated by David Cameron – and the “Good Society” offered by Ed Miliband, the Labour leader.

Neither is a particularly clever choice of words, given the economic backdrop to the spending cuts, Kenneth Clarke’s admission that the middle classes – the backbone of the voluntary sector – will bear the brunt of the financial queeze and the fact that the Prime Minister is, yet again, having to relaunch his muddled policy.

Perhaps both Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband have more in common than they are prepared to admit. What they are both calling for, in their distinct ways, is a better society with individual communities at the heart of the delivery of local services and people having greater pride in their neighbourhood.

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If this is what both men mean, and their various interventions yesterday did not provide any greater clarity, then it is a noble objective. However, it fails to take heed of the fact that the country has become far more transient – particularly through travel – and the aspirations of families now extend beyond their parish boundary.

It is also counter-productive to implore residents to become more active citizens when libraries, and other facilities that are the fulcrum of so many community activities, are being closed down in such numbers, and also against the wishes of so many people.

As Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, made clear with a typically considered intervention, a “Big Society” is meritorious if it is properly funded and clearly defined. It is not acceptable, however, for this policy to mask the Government’s spending cuts – or to be a means for Whitehall departments to absolve themselves of certain responsibilities.

This is the greatest challenge facing Mr Cameron as he tries to prevent his primary aspiration from becoming the subject of even more ridicule. There is nothing wrong in encouraging charities and social enterprises. The State does not always know best. But this approach can only evolve if there is greater certainty about responsibilities and funding – two assurances that the PM has still to provide.