Saturday, 14 August 2010

Cuts begin to bite: Big Society nowhere to be seen Here's how it starts. Back in May the Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Laws said, according to BBC News, that 'every new spending commitment and pilot project signed off by Labour ministers since the turn of the year would be individually reviewed in a bid to find savings.' Last week I learned of one painful casualty of this clawing back, a community development project in Watford. Watford's Council for Voluntary Service had developed the proposal, including for a community assembly, partly with a view to making the Local Strategic Partnership accountable and representative. The stated objective was: 'to ensure that everyone in Watford has access to a community group to represent their needs and interests, and that these groups have a way of influencing local decisions.' An enthusiastic community development worker was in place whose role included promoting community engagement and volunteering, and supporting new community groups. Eleven weeks into building the necessary relationships, the claws reached him. The news somewhat overshadowed a meeting of the Watford community development network yesterday. It happens that the agenda for the meeting included discussion of Big Society, a well-known government initiative promoting principles of localism and co-production, with much-publicised intentions of generating precisely the sort of effects and outcomes that the community assembly was designed and funded to bring. Polly Toynbee pointed out last week that 'as services shrivel and die it will be easier than usual to summon up indignation.' And the authors of the Big Society idea helpfully directed our attention to Alinsky-style acitivism at the outset. I'm not so confident of any kind of uprising of protest just yet, but give it time.
We’re not all in this together 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.

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