Coalition's first 100 days: Cameron's Big Society

David Cameron's Big Society could radically change Britain
David Cameron's Big Society could radically change Britain

In the fifth of politics.co.uk's week-long series of features on the coalition government, we examine growing doubts about the viability of David Cameron's Big Society.

By Alex Stevenson

If the prime minister has his way the Britain which emerges at the end of his government will be very different from the one we're living in now. His big idea is the Big Society. No-one understood it before the general election and Tory campaigners reported little interest from voters on the doorstep. These early setbacks haven't deterred the prime minister, forcing us all to try and work out what he actually meant.

Cameron moved quickly to explain his plans after entering Downing Street. He's fed up with the "monolithic and clumsy" Labour state. Instead the idea is to strip powers from Whitehall and shift them closer to those who are actually doing the legwork on the ground.


This agenda slots easily into the coalition's priorities. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has talked of the need for "radical change that puts power back in the hands of the people". The Lib Dems will help the Tories implement Cameron's Big Society desire to hand power back to "people and communities". That means you.

The PM hasn't been holding back. "It's about liberation - the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street," he told a Liverpool audience in July. Instead of turning to the state to solve problems, individuals, businesses and community organisations are encouraged to get on with it themselves. "It's about people setting up great new schools," Cameron continued. "Businesses helping people getting trained for work. Charities working to rehabilitate offenders."

This is his "passion" and the initiatives it has spawned are visible across government: from the new academy schools run by teachers rather than local authorities, via the health service mutuals planned in the NHS white paper, to the renewed emphasis on charities and volunteer groups.

But turning these grand designs into reality is another matter altogether. Cameron faces a huge battle on his hands to win over the country to this new culture shift. Even the obvious supporters of the Big Society are looking distinctly uncomfortable.

Local authorities left out

You might think local authorities would be screaming with delight at the prospect of all this devolved power. In fact they are much more reserved. Yes, councils are to be handed a 'general power of competence'. They are being given much greater housing and planning powers. Public health responsibilities are returning to local government. And the oppressive and heavy-handed inspections culture is to be lightened. But there is a flip-side to the coalition's agenda, too.

"The sentiment of the Big Society is to be encouraged and, certainly, the government have put decentralisation at the heart of domestic policy agenda. But I think it needs to work out exactly where local government is placed within that and give councillors a very clear role in terms of delivering the Big Society," says James Hulme, communications director of the New Local Government Network thinktank.

Early steps from the coalition are undermining any efforts to win councillors' trust. The problem is summed up by communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles' decision to intervene over two-week bin deliveries - which are now banned outright.

"You can't talk about localism, and then interfere, interfere, interfere," complains Richard Kemp, the leader of the Liberal Democrats' group within the Local Government Association. He gives the coalition eight out of ten on their approach to local government and happily lists the return of powers expected in the decentralisation and localism bill.
"And then he insists we publish every invoice worth more than £500 and we can't use lobbyists," he grumbles. "You can't believe in localism and at the same time micromanage [council] activity."

Local authorities are likely to be both beneficiaries and victims of the Big Society. Powers are being transferred from London to town halls where possible - but they're also being shifted from councils to the people as part of a great move downwards. It's about local community groups, charities and professional groups, as much as it is about helping councillors. Nathan Yeowell, head of office for the LGA's Labour group, warns that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

"The question is the extent to which councils will have the capacity going forward to provide the services their citizens need - and the extent to which the government will leapfrog councils and devolve power to people in communities," he says.

Councils are already facing a long list of lost influence. Local people are going to be given the chance to veto council tax rises and block housing developments they oppose through small-scale referenda. In practice the introduction of these moves will make it much harder for rogue left-wing councils to get their way, reinforcing the mould rather than diversity among local authorities.

There are also doubts about their legitimacy. Will they really help fulfil the coalition's pledge to increase public engagement in politics? Ruth Fox of the Hansard Society isn't sure. "Referenda would be most effective in the context of boosting public engagement if it's accompanied by good high quality public education campaigns that address the issues in a way that engages the public interest and sufficiently explains the pros and cons of the issue before them that they're being asked to vote upon," she says. Would a council tax referendum really tick all these boxes? Will they be a realistic consultation exercise - or a sham?

Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that local authorities are not greeting the Big Society with enormous enthusiasm. "To an extent it's a double-edged sword," Hulme adds. "On one hand the government is giving councils greater freedoms... but on the other there's still a lot of micromanagement from Whitehall. They sit together rather uneasily."

Accountability issues

Let's assume that the Big Society does get off the ground. That it is everything Cameron wants it to be, with our schools, hospitals and other local services taken over by the well-meaning and enthusiastic. Are the coalition government's problems over? No. Far from it.

Many are extremely concerned the do-it-yourself government will have a negative impact on the overall quality of public services. Under Labour the targets-driven system created a short-termist culture where public sector workers look to clear the next hurdle, abandoning that all-important long-term perspective. Under the coalition comes the return of a spectre Labour worked so hard to avoid: the postcode lottery.

"In affluent areas, or those where there are self-interested groups that want to take over, a voluntarist approach to providing services for one's fellow citizens might have more traction," Yeowell adds.

"But in other areas where there's high level of poverty... we can't just keep our fingers crossed there will be people there. Councils don't have the capacity or the wherewithal to actually provide for people in those situations - so we could end up in a pretty sticky situation."

Natalie Evans of Policy Exchange, the centre-right thinktank which has generated much of the thinking behind the Big Society, insists postcode lotteries are part of the plan. She acknowledges that differences will develop, as the Big Society leads to improved performances in one area. "Where something works really well, that will mean people next door think 'why aren't we getting that?'" They will then begin to put pressure on to get what their neighbours have. "Rather than the lowest common denominator," Evans explains, "it might help to encourage improvements and better delivery of services."

It is inevitable, though, that at least some of the various mutuals, cooperatives and other groups will prove less successful than that "lowest common denominator" - that they will, in short, make things better than worse. Hulme believes this is when the accountability deficit at the heart of the Big Society will become a huge problem. "At what point does the public say these people are not elected, not accountable, so why should they have the power?" he asks.

"It's one area where they shouldn't underestimate the importance of having that mandate and accountability in terms of providing services and spending people's money."

Evans agrees that national and local governments face a big challenge in the coming months - avoiding rushing into implementing changes which haven't been properly thought through. "It's going to take quite a lot of will from the coalition and from local authorities to stand up when things go wrong," she says. It's all part of the test to come.

What if no-one turns up?

One problem which could emerge is that, despite the 'invitation to join the government of Britain' emblazoned on the front cover of the Conservative party's election manifesto, many people won't bother turning up at all. In the best of all possible worlds, localists argue getting 0.5% of citizens to be actively involved, and five per cent involved on a more informal level, represents pretty good turnout. You only need to look at school governing bodies to prove the point. Being on these involves having an influence on a genuinely significant body which controls a multimillion pound budget. Yet they do not always hold competitive elections. If it's hard enough persuading parents to get involved when they have such an obvious interest, should we really be confident that the well-meaning British are earnestly looking forward to getting involved?

You might think the leader of the LGA's Liberal Democrats group might have bought into the idea. But he remains gravely concerned by its proposals.

"I think the problem with the Big Society is it's quite utopian," Kemp says. "It's largely been thought up by people who've never had to deliver it... I just don't think it's realistic."

Perhaps in an exciting boom-time environment, where large amounts of money are ready to be invested, it would be easy to find enthused people to join in. The current climate couldn't be less cheerful. "Money will be needed to set up these bodies and provide the services anyway," Yeowell adds. "If funding is being removed left right and centre, where are these people going to be found?"

Evans points out that much of the Big Society's emphasis isn't really on the "man on the street" at all. Its focus is on philanthropists, charities, civil servants and businesses who are prepared to come together.

"For good local authorities who know their area and are in tune with their citizens, it offers a lot of opportunity to really develop local services that target the needs of their communities," Evans says.

"Hopefully it will engender better joined-up thinking. One would hope they know their communities well, they know how to help the vulnerable families, and if they embrace it and grasp it and work locally, they could make a really big difference."

This is the prize which Cameron is after; a focus on improving the overall standard by encouraging postcode lotteries rather than frowning at them. Now we've worked out what it means the Big Society is emerging as a major potential rule-changer in the relationship between the state and ordinary people. It's likely to outrage as many people as it will excite - the true meaning of a radical policy agenda.

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