I’ve been thinking about Big Society as a cluster of three overlapping themes: smaller state, localism, and co-production.
For me localism means the celebration of local assets and a concern for local solutions to local problems. It should not mean abandoning local people to regional or national problems – such as a shortage of affordable housing for example.
From the community development perspective, the emphasis on localism and co-production are overdue and more than welcome. The only theme that’s problematic is the first one, ‘smaller state’. To outsiders, CD sometimes shifts in a slippery way between an emphasis on self-help or mutual aid on the one hand, and insistence on state services to support those most in need on the other; so maybe it’s not surprising that there has not been a coherent response. Of course, it isn’t a question of shifting: both are needed.
Unfortunately, ‘rolling back the state’ polarises those for whom it will be alright and those for whom it won’t be. People who experience exclusion start with no options. In recent weeks the Rollers Back have shown that their understanding of this may be in need of rolling forwards.
And the danger for the folk behind BS is in implying that by making the state smaller you will automatically reveal a big society that was there all along. In many places that surely is the case: but not everywhere, and the least they can do is show some human recognition that that is the case. Some people – far more I suspect than our policymakers seem ready to believe - still lack a Small Society and will be the more vulnerable without organised support.
Last week a social worker told me that in his office the staffing level was 50% before cuts and their pay has been frozen.
In the context of savage cuts to public sector spending it’s politically convenient to imply that ‘we’re all in this together’. That’s just devious. We’re not all in this together. Some are poncing about with Pimms on the upper deck while some are clinging desperately to the sides, and many detached are screaming from the rising waters. Responsible politicians would acknowledge that, then do something about it.