David Cameron launched his Big Society agenda there on Monday. Did he have a more valid reason for choosing Liverpool than the corny symbolism of holding his press conference at Liverpool Hope University? Yes, Liverpool, apparently, has volunteered to be one of four "vanguard communities", although someone might have told them:
Some of the local partners in the "vanguard communities" that David Cameron said will lead his "big society" revolution were uncertain about what being in the vanguard will involve.Who are these vanguard communities and what is planned for them?
Many involved in the voluntary sector had been given limited information, and some were warning that voluntary organisations hit by funding cuts will be hard pushed to deliver more.
"We don't know how it's going to work," a spokesman for Liverpool city council said. "We have been given no information about this."
[Rachel Williams and Rajeev Syal, Guardian, 19 July]
Liverpool, the Eden Valley in Cumbria, Windsor and Maidenhead in Berkshire and Sutton in south-west London will become "vanguard communities". All four authorities approached the government to experiment with running the parts of their public services they think they can administer better.Personally, I find the whole idea of Big Society unconvincing and deeply patronising. This is Cameron from his launch speech:
They may have central government budgets handed over to them to administer at street level, attempt to improve local transport links themselves, take over command of local assets such as pubs and community services, have a greater say over planning permission or local transport and, in the case of Liverpool, allow volunteers to keep a popular local museum open for longer hours.
...The government will also announce the creation of a "Big Society Bank" to help finance social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups. The money will come from dormant bank and building society accounts – the amount is thought to be as much as £400m.
[Allegra Stratton, Guardian, 19 July]
For years there was the basic assumption at the heart of government that the way to improve things in society was to micromanage from the centre, from Westminster. But this just doesn't work. It has turned able, capable, individuals into passive recipients of state help with little hope for a better future. It has turned lively communities into dull, soulless clones of one another.What is he on about? Could he give us some concrete examples? I assume he has no plans to stop supermarkets building "soulless" out-of-town and close-to-town shopping developments, that suck the lifeblood out of high streets? When high street shops close and are taken over by charity shops, that's a good thing, right? Is that Big Society? Well, he's hoping that more and more public services will be run by charities...
Who are these able, capable individuals passively receiving state aid? I assume he is talking about the people he wants to drive off benefits (or, in less sensitive Tory tabloid-speak, "benefits-scroungers")? Or is he talking about wider circles of people, those of us who turn up to our local hospital and expect to find it open? He either needs to spell things out more... or drop the hyperbolic rhetoric.
He has claimed that the Big Society agenda is not just an attempt to prettify the cuts. But he brings along Eric Pickles, communities secretary, to play hard cop. Here's Pickles on Radio 4:
Even at a time when money is tight it is still possible to find different ways of delivering. It is unashamedly about getting more for less. But it is about passing power down to folks so you can start to mould your own neighbourhood and put something back in.Put something back in? What if you don't have anything to start with? Again, Cameron says this is not just a return to patchwork Victorian philanthropy, but if Big Society really takes off - I'm not sure it can, I'm not sure we can turn back the clock that far without major upheaval! - that's what it would be.
The Guardian publishes an excellent set of reasoned objections to Big Society on its letters page today. This is one of the best:
The ability of community and voluntary groups to significantly increase their role in delivering public services is not easy. They will need time and space to grow and develop local delivery options. For this to happen, the government will have to be more interventionist and reform procurement practice away from raw market "efficiencies" toward effectiveness, the local, and less traditional commercial public service providers. If the government does this it will be fettering the speed and scale of contracts given to the private sector. For the government to create its "big society" it will have to intervene in the public sector market.In Barnet the council wants to hand over delivery of most council services to a big private sector contractor, where's our Big Society? And it stops residents asking the questions they want to ask of local government, where's our Big Society?
Some used to say the public sector crowds out the commercial sector. Now the commercial sector is in danger of crowding out civil society and fettering the "big society". Has the government the stomach for this, or will "big society" actually come to mean big business?
Neil McInroy, Chief executive, Centre for Local Economic Strategies
There is one actor that has not figured in all of Cameron's calculations and it is the working class, I mean the self-conscious working class, understanding its history. Before the advent of the welfare state, sure, there was philanthropy but a lot of it was, frankly, cranky stuff shaped by the preoccupations of the middle- and upper-class people delivering it. Coverage was patchy and it was wholly inadequate. Historians of the lower orders have shown that the working class basically survived through its own support networks, with poor people helping out the poorer as best they could. And you could go out without locking your door... That was community, that was Big Society. But it was class society.
Who were the greatest enthusiasts for the Big State? Who, recalling the horrors of the 30s, clamoured for it after the Second World War? The working clases. They are not anywhere in Cameron's calculations, and it is time they began to assert themselves again. Big Society will not bring hope to Liverpool, the working class might.