Malcolm Barker: The Big Society? It’s as much of a mystery as the Midsomer Murders

WHEN members of the Lucky Generation (those born in England during the decade before 1939) get together, talk frequently turns to life’s mysteries. Why is it, for example, that repeats of ITV’s Midsomer Murders are so addictive? What is the nature and purpose of an iPod? Who understands David Cameron’s Big Society?

The last topic produces either groans or a profound silence, for the truth is that most of us do not have the foggiest idea what it may be.

Mr Cameron is not much help. His latest promise of a White Paper on the subject encourages the hope of clarification but, sadly, the more he explains the more people seem baffled.

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This is borne out by the polls. They show that 72 per cent of the public say they do not understand what the Big Society is, and the more the Prime Minister talks about it, the more that percentage seems to rise.

His latest pronouncement may well add further obfuscation. Among key principles, he averred, would be that of diversity: “We will create a new presumption – backed by new rights for public service users and a new system of independent adjudication – that public services would be open to a range of providers competing to offer a better service.”

That’s all very well, but what does it mean?

It is questionable whether our public services are really so bad that a revolution is required.

Most of us approaching our eighties would not be here but for the National Health Service, and those who need help generally find that it does a wonderful job, caring, repairing, and sending patients on their way somewhere near rejoicing. Most of us are pleased with the way our dustbins are emptied, and if we wait patiently we know winter’s legacy of potholes on our roads will one day be filled in.

What’s worrying about the Big Society is its very title. Big has long ceased to mean best in our estimation. Many members of the Lucky Generation had their first experience of banking with such organisations as the Yorkshire Penny Bank, or the Leeds Skyrack and Morley, solid, sensible and totally reliable.

We called every month at a branch of a building society to pay our mortgage dues. It was as difficult to imagine the societies indulging in profligate lending as it was to think of the huge and daunting headquarters of the Leeds Permanent in The Headrow, Leeds, shaking on its foundations.

Contrast that with the current perception of financial institutions. Fairly or otherwise, most folk scorn them as spendthrift, grasping, greedy and, worst of all, incompetent. Big banks are so remote from the people that local branches no longer have local telephone numbers, and queries may be answered anywhere from Brazil to Bangladesh.

Big is better was the message in the early 1970s when local government reorganisation was pushed through by the Conservative Government of Edward Heath, and what a disaster that turned out to be.

The huge and remote authorities thus created operate almost in a vacuum, their debates (if they have them) unreported, and their spending (especially on councillors’ allowances and officials’ salaries) running out of control.

Take Philip Dolan who ran South Somerset District Council. He received a total pay and pension package of almost £570,000 last year – four times Mr Cameron’s salary – before leaving the authority. He’s now looking for other work.

The leader’s allowance on Barnet Council is £54,000 per year.

West Sussex Council seems to be acting in a manner it thinks might conform with the Big Society. It considered getting rid of its lollipop ladies, and handing the supervision of school crossings to volunteers, presumably parents who would be expected to do it for nothing. The same in Exeter. That is not really what Mr Cameron is talking about, surely?

Nearer home, North Yorkshire County Council has listed no fewer than 23 local libraries for closure. Martin Vander Weyer, who writes on business for The Spectator magazine, and lives at Helmsley, calculates that the average running cost last year was just £35,000 per library. He reckons that North Yorkshire employs more than 100 managers on salaries of £50,000 or more. Shedding just 15 of these jobs would keep all the libraries open.

Mr Cameron needs to be wary. If the public gets the idea that the Big Society means councils saving money, it is doomed before it starts.

Already we know it is going to come at a cost, and result in an even greater expansion in the number of people on the taxpayers’ payroll. There are to be 500 senior community organisers who will each be paid £20,000 in their first year. Their task will be to further the advance of the Big Society by “harnessing the energy and ideas of individuals and communities”.

The Government also announced that a body called Locality will train the “neighbourhood army” vital to the Prime Minister’s plans for the Big Society.

A friend who is very much a member of the Lucky Generation declared himself thoroughly alarmed. By and large, he opined, the English did not like being harnessed. Could it possibly be that the Big Society was destined for the same bin as the one to which the plan to sell the forests was consigned, thus leaving us in possession of gloomy groves of conifers, where no birds sing?

With that in mind, we hurried off to catch Midsomer Murders. Someone said it was the one where Richard Briers jumped off a church roof. Never mind, with Tom Barnaby in charge, all would come well in the end. If only we could feel the same confidence in Mr Cameron and his Big Society.

Malcolm Barker is a former editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post