Analysis: Without cash, the ‘big society’ is doomed

Properly funded, the 'big society' could change Britain. Without it, David Cameron's big idea is going to be dismissed before it even gets off the ground.

By Alex Stevenson

You can't blame those who refuse to take the 'big society' seriously.

The problem is the spending cuts. Many ordinary people are struggling to accept that this great idea has popped up just as the government begins conducting one of the most brutally uncompromising programmes of deficit reduction seen in modern western history.

"Hang on a minute, lads," says David 'Michael Caine' Cameron. "I've got a great idea." We can get ordinary people to do public service work for us, he suggests. That might save a bob or two.

It's going to be incredibly hard to change the minds of those who think this idea is a political smokescreen for cuts – and not a very effective one, at that.

But maybe, just maybe, the 'big society' idea is big enough to transcend the austerity drive. The PM might complain that he's been dealt a tough hand by the challenges of austerity. But then, who said being in government was easy?

At its most ambitious, the 'big society' aims to create a different kind of Britain, where people are instinctively more enthusiastic to get involved and make their community a better place to be.

It already exists in the leafy villages of Tory England. The challenge is embedding it in the deprived, built-up areas where Labour's instincts to intervene and help out tend to do better with voters.

The 'big society' doesn't really fit into the old dichotomy between Labour's restless, 'we've got to do something!' knee-jerk response to any political problem and the Tories' laissez-faire shoulder-shrugging.

Its proponents are more than happy to spend money to help communities get started. Say the local library shuts, for example. In some parts of the country you might find enough volunteers to set up some sort of replacement. In others, there just won't be the enthusiasm, or even the skills, to get that replacement growing.

Under the 'big society' the government should spend money to train people up to convince them they can do it by themselves, after all.

What's your gut response to that? Are you ready to sign up on the dotted line? Or do you think that ministers are probably going to be wasting their time, that however hard they try they'll never be able to get people to step in and take over for themselves?

If the 'big society' ultimately succeeds it has to change the way you think. You'll believe it is possible for a little bit of help from the government to make this difference, to 'empower' communities with just a nudge here and a bit of training there.

Have we become a country where we shake our heads and think 'this can't be done'?

Most people, while wanting to think that's not the case, will privately feel the 'big society' ambitions stretch a bit too far.

The experts think it could take up to 30 years to achieve the kind of mental shift which Cameron and co ultimately aspire to.

And this is the problem. The prime minister doesn't have that long.

If the 'big society' is to get any traction at all, he needs to throw money at it quickly to prevent it being nothing more than a pet project for all those quiet country villages where the local Tories were already doing it, anyway.

It's the deprived areas who need the helping hand which need prioritising. How unfortunate, then, that there's no money available to turn Cameron's big idea into reality.

With the constraints of the current 'fiscal consolidation' leaving the PM's hands tied, there is only ever going to be one verdict on his great plan to change the country.