Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Two Years Of The Big Society

You can do a lot in two years. You can launch and run an initiative that allows charities and local groups to help communities in need. You can bring together the best ideas that the third sector has to offer and allow them to thrive with the security of government backing.

Or you can do what David Cameron and the coalition government did.

Two years seems like a good time to have an overview of what the Big Society has achieved. It should be a robust and mature program by now, helping hundreds of voluntary groups to bring a little light into their neighbourhoods. Instead, the opposite seems to be happening.

An independent audit carried out by think tank Civil Exchange on the first two years of The Big Society paints a harsh picture. It shows that swingeing cuts to local services have crippled the third sector's ability to do what's been asked of them, and the initial goodwill that they had towards the project has by and large evaporated. Lord Wei, the "czar" charged with masterminding the forward sweep of the initiative, quit after less than a year in office. The project has seen five relaunches, each marred with increasingly strident accusations of mismanagement and complacency by the government from charities and local groups that should be at the heart of the whole process.

Things are bleaker now than ever. There's evidence of a clear north/south divide, with those charities most in need finding themselves side-lined in favour of so-called "leafy suburb initiatives". Let me give you an example.
The Guardian highlights a project in Manton, Nottinghamshire, which was a prime example of how to bring a community together through radical approaches that often ignored the accepted way of doing things in favour of something more closely tailored to the needs of the local people. The Manton Community Alliance was a huge success, and its neighbourhood manager, Richard Edwards, was invited to Downing Street along with other carefully chosen local activists in 2010 to discuss ways to roll out the Manton success story across the country.

You notice I'm using the past tense. Manton's funding was slashed, and the Community Alliance shut up shop at the end of December. Yet another example of the coalition promising one thing, and delivering precisely the opposite.

Most of the community leaders and charity bosses that were at the Downing Street meeting launching the Big Society are now bluntly pessimistic about the initiative. The sad thing is that the idea is a good one, carried on a genuine wave of public support. Shifting the focus from an isolated central authority and giving power and responsibility to committed and talented community workers makes all kinds of sense. Why not give the people who understand their communities best the financial security to carry out reforms that have real benefit? Good question. The sad fact is that It simply hasn't happened. Brutal cuts that will add up to over £3 billion by 2015, paired with the belief that voluntary and charity workers find it impossible to get their voices heard in Parliament, have effectively chopped the Big Society off at the knees not once, but time and time again.

There's a real sense of frustration at the heart of the Civil Exchange report, and it's not surprising. The best and brightest minds in the charity and voluntary sector were brought together to help put together a radical experiment in social change, and have been systematically prevented from doing so.

You can read the full report from Civil Exchange at the link below. It's not light, or cheerful reading.

The Big Society Audit 2012

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