Friday 15 July 2011

Keeping An Eye On The Big Society

With all the hoopla, furore and general whoop-te-doo surrounding the Murdochs, Sky and a newspaper industry that's looking more like a badly run spy network everyday, it's important to keep your eyes open for the other news announcements. The ones that get sneaked out while everyone's looking somewhere else. Even if they're not bad news, you have to wonder why the story has to come out at that moment.

The latest example of this has been David Cameron's renewal of the Big Society pledge. This is the coalition's attempt to bring public services up to speed by allowing volunteer, charity and business interests to compete for their provision. Competition is, after all, a good thing, leading to more choice and value for money.

Well, yes and no. I agree wholeheartedly that the volunteer and charity sector is vital to the well-being of the country. I'm completely behind the notion that communities should help each other out, that local knowledge trumps diktats from a remote central office. And I also believe that we can see when there is a need for community action, and are able to quickly unite to solve problems. We Brits are also a charitable bunch - look at what we do every year for Comic Relief, for urgent DEC fundraising efforts in places like the Sudan. Frankly, we already get The Big Society.

The thing is, I'm not sure that Cameron and the coalition government do. Savage cuts to council funding have already started to bite the very groups on which this new strategy is supposed to depend. Across the country, these groups are scaling back services or are forced to close just at the point when they are being asked to take on a more frontline role.

And that's the thing that worries me most. Charities and volunteer groups should enhance and complement, not replace existing local services. When councils decide to displace, for example, trained professional librarians with a squad of volunteers, there's clearly no understanding that it's a complex and labour-intensive job. It's not simply shelf-stacking, and you can't pick it up in an afternoon. Worse, what is supposed to happen in deprived areas where people simply can't afford the time to help out?

I'm not alone in thinking this either. Oxfam's trading director David McCullough has already spoken out on the issue after the charity was approached by other councils for advice on using volunteers. He says:

"A vibrant, engaged community starts from an investment in infrastructure and skills, which can then be supplemented with a willing volunteer base. Cutting jobs for trained staff and hoping to fill the space with volunteers will not deliver a stable, long-term solution."

I think that while there is nothing wrong in principle with The Big Society idea, there are big problems in the way it's being implemented and managed. And I also can't help but agree with critics who suspect at a time when local councils are having to cut budgets by 27% over four years, placing responsibility on local residents is just cover for cutting council services. When the budgets for the groups who are supposed to take up the slack are being cut as well, you have to wonder who's in charge, and what they think they're playing at.

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