Monday 7 February 2011

Has Eric Pickles squashed the Big Society rescue plan?

Who killed the big society? Well, David Cameron's big idea isn't dead, though it increasingly looks like it will need to be resuscitated from intensive care.

If it doesn't survive, it may turn out to be Eric Pickles who squashed it.

Next Left recently offered three tips on how to rescue the big society. It seems that its champions are adopting a broadly similar rescue strategy (even as a further spate of damaging headlines is leading to questions of whether the slogan should be quietly dropped).

Adviser Nat Wei is indeed emphasising both the gradualism of the idea, and the need for a positive role of government in facilitating it.

But the central and most difficult challenge was the third one: whether the big society "can find greater distinctiveness from the austerity agenda, including a willingness to challenge cuts which undermine it". The withdrawal of Liverpool from the government's pilot scheme, over the scale of cuts to its voluntary sector, and the high profile warnings of leading charity voices, demonstrate that the challenge is an increasingly urgent one.

David Cameron's closest advisers, the architects of the big society, have recognised the project is in mortal danger. The Guardian reports that they formulated a plan to respond and rescue the big society - but that communities secretary Eric Pickles has blocked it.

The Guardian has established that ministers and No 10 formulated plans to reward councils for their contribution to the big society or force them to show they were cutting their own costs as much as their contracts with charities. But Pickles rejected the proposals.

A senior Whitehall source said Pickles had opposed the plans formulated by Steve Hilton, the No 10 strategy chief, the Cabinet Office ministers Oliver Letwin and Francis Maude and the big society "tsar", Nat Wei. Pickles instead agreed to hold one-to-one conversations with the worst-offending councils that were "gung-ho" about the cuts.

The report also has a good deal on how the LibDems and Comrade Pickles do not exactly see eye to eye on localism.

The Labour party is increasingly emphasising the argument that David Cameron has failed to will the means to bring the positive idea of great civic participation to fruition.

"The Tory-led government are on the brink of destroying this country's great tradition of community support and solidarity. The consequences of their actions will be the slow death of a number of community groups, which will be irreversible in the short or medium term.

"David Cameron can no longer straddle two contradictory positions – sustained cuts in support to community groups and a big society notion which relies on the capacity and engagement of those very same organisations.

Ed Balls was championing a similar idea in Nottingham today, where the Shadow Chancellor said:

"People want to feel as though they have a direct say in their communities, they want to lead. You can't ensure communities are safe through voluntary action. You can't do that unless you've got the police officers on the street, which are being cut. You can't have volunteers supporting the vulnerable in our society if the funding for that volunteer network is being scaled back, as we're seeing with organisations like Homestart. As the expert said today on the front of The Times, Government money is needed to make that voluntary civic society work, otherwise it's just a lottery. And if you're lucky enough to have someone who will volunteer, fine, but if you're not, hard luck, and that's not a fair society.

"I think governments have got a proper role to play in order to support that vision of an inclusive bottom-up society. I fear that what David Cameron is doing at the moment will take us in the opposite direction of what will work."

The Prime Minister and his advisers should be pleased to see the idea of civic enaggement winning growing support across the political spectrum. But he may have mixed feelings if the "big society" starts to look less like the mission of the government, and more like one of the most commonly voiced critiques of it.

1 comment:

m140ayj46 said...

Readers may be interested in the new book 'Big Society Challenge' edited by Marina Stott, which has 22 chapters from a range of vantage points on the big society proposals
the book can be downloaded for free on
also a description can be found on