Jon Dean: Time to revive the debate over Britain’s Big Society

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As a researcher, you are always excited when one of your interests becomes big news. This was true for me in 2010 when I heard the then leader of the Conservative Opposition, David Cameron, talk about his proposed plan for government. The ‘Big Society’, he said, would be a new form of governing. Centred on the themes of localisation and enhancing democratic participation, power and responsibility would be handed back to people so that they could make more of the decisions which affect their lives and their local services. Alongside this, charities and voluntary organisations would play a greater role in delivering public services, further breaking up the monopoly of big government and big business.

Five years later, as we approach another General Election, the Big Society is absent from the debate. Coalition politicians try to sweep it under the rug and pretend it never happened. The organisation founded to support the Big Society has quietly disappeared, and is the subject of a Charity Commission investigation for misuse of government funds. In the words of the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the whole policy seems to have been little more than ‘aspirational waffle’.

A recent report on the Big Society from the think-tank Civil Exchange says much the same. After five years, the report concludes that the results of the Big Society have been mostly negative. Fewer people think they can affect local decisions, people are more disenchanted with politics, and, perhaps most worryingly, communities are weaker. Civil Exchange see a quasi-monopoly of private providers providing public services rather than entrusting such services to the people themselves. We know that richer areas are rich in quality services, and poorer areas are increasingly left behind.

These results are not surprising. At a time when people are hurting, when inflation has outstripped wage growth and the middle has been considerably squeezed, it is no coincidence that the general public did not want to listen to airy fairy discussions about ‘people power’ and doing more volunteering and giving more to charitable causes in order to provide services no one had been warned would be cut.

The idea of the Big Society as a ‘cover for cuts’ soon entrenched itself in the public consciousness. However, there is a more simple explanation for the failure of the Big Society as a revolutionary idea: we already have one. The United Kingdom still retains a thriving voluntary and community sector, with local organisations in every town and local area in the country – although not with enough resources where they are most needed. There are nearly 180,000 established charities in the UK, with many more operating below the radar. These range from the largest, most recognisable charities with multi-million pound budgets, thousands of staff, and significant presence across the country and across the world, to the smallest lunch clubs offering support to a handful of people in need, or just a safe and comfortable space for a friendly chat.

Incredibly, over 90 per cent of these charities have no paid members of staff. While the financial crisis and austerity have led to less charitable giving, in 2012 the UK population still gave £9.3bn to charitable causes, with 55 per cent of adults making donations in a typical month. The social value of the informal help and neighbourliness that people offer one another is also priceless. Carers provide an estimated £119bn worth of care for loved ones for free each year – more than the entire NHS budget. We could not cope as a nation if this everyday compassion were to disappear.

Charity, while retaining a public image as a nice and uncontroversial ‘good thing’, is inherently political. Some critics on the Right argue that charities have become too close to government and reliant on public contracts, whereas some critics on the Left argue that the continued existence of charities such as food banks abdicate government of its responsibilities to provide a basic social safety net. Some charities such as the RNLI refuse to take government money, whereas others exist solely on funding from public contracts. Many charities, another recent report by the National Coalition for Independent Action has shown, are fearful to speak out about social inequality in case they lose funding or face other sanctions.

The Big Society may have fallen by the wayside, but Britons will continue to give their time and money generously. Yet as we move towards a General Election, the role of volunteering and charity in public life should play a larger part in public debate. With all the major parties promising further deep budget cuts, as a population we have to consider and decide what services we want paid for out of general taxation, which ones we choose to top up through our own personal charitable giving, and what causes we are willing to provide our time to support.

Is relying on the kindness of strangers enough? Do we think social services such as social care, arts and libraries, and children’s sports clubs are vital? And if so, how reliant on voluntary labour and private donations are we willing to let them get?

David Cameron’s assumption that we all could do more may have been wrong. Maybe we are already doing too much.