The Big Society, Part 1 – Overview and Community


English: Michael Gove speaking at the Conserva...

English: Michael Gove speaking at the Conservative Party “Big Society” policy launch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For my Mass Observation Spring Directive report one of the topics was the ‘Big Society‘.  I have finally gotten round to writing up my piece on the subject and as I said months ago when I started with massobs I will share my responses to the directives on my blog. This ended up being a very long response as there were a lot of questions so I will be splitting it into at least two posts, in addition I also thought it would be handy to include an excerpt that explains what the ‘Big Society’ is, as I am sure like me, many of you have heard of it but not really know what it is…

Anyway, here we go…

Immediate thoughts on the term ‘Big Society’

My immediate reaction to the term ‘Big Society’ is that I used to hear the words being said on the news, on radio and TV quite a lot in 2010 and 2011, mainly in relation to the election of the coalition government, but the details of what it is really all about were very limited. Community and volunteering appear to be key features of it, but I don’t recall hearing any mention of it at all so far in 2012.

General Questions about the ‘Big Society’

Before this Directive, had you ever heard of the term ‘Big Society’? Yes

If you have heard of the ‘Big Society’ can you remember when you first heard of it? I can’t remember when I first heard the term precisely but I think it would have been in relation to the Conservative manifesto and the elections in 2010.

What was your reaction to the term? I didn’t really pay much attention to it at the time.

Does this feel like a new idea to you? I don’t think so…

If it doesn’t seem like a new idea, please say why. It just seems to be a new label for something that already existed, community involvement and volunteering; or a ‘top-down’ attempt to increase grass-roots activity. It feels like the government trying to take control of and take credit for things done at a local level, things that have been happening for a long time without their recognition or involvement.

Where do you get your information about the ‘Big Society’ from (for example, newspapers, television, radio, the internet, Twitter, Facebook)? TV, radio, internet.

The Big Society

Here is an excerpt taken from a government website that explains the ‘Big Society’:

The Big Society is about helping people to come together to improve their own lives. It’s about putting more power in people’s hands – a massive transfer of power from Whitehall to local communities. There are three key parts to the Big Society agenda:

Community empowerment: giving local councils and neighbourhoods more power to take decisions and shape their area. Our planning reforms lead by DCLG, will replace the old top-down planning system with real power for neighbourhoods to decide the future of their area.
Opening up public services: our public service reforms will enable charities, social enterprises, private companies and employee-owned mutuals to compete to offer people high quality services. The welfare to work programme, lead by the Department for Work and Pensions will enable a wide range of organisations to help get Britain off welfare and into work.
Social action: encouraging and enabling people to play a more active part in society. National Citizen Service, Community Organisers and Community First will encourage people to get involved in their communities.

The Office for Civil Society, part of the Cabinet Office, works across government departments to translate the Big Society agenda into practical policies, provides support to voluntary and community organisations and is responsible for delivering a number of key Big Society programmes, namely:

Growing the social investment market
The Government’s ambition is for social investment to become a third pillar of finance for the social sector, alongside traditional philanthropy and Government grants. Growing the social investment market has the potential to build society and grow the economy, and we are conducting a range of innovative initiatives to enable this:
• Big Society Capital
Social Impact Bonds
• Investment and Contract Readiness Fund
• Impact measurement
• Review of tax relief

National Citizen Service Pilots
The National Citizen Service (NCS) scheme will bring 16 year olds from different backgrounds together over the summer to take part in residential and home-based activities such as outdoor challenges and local community projects.
Cabinet Office will run pilots for National Citizen Service in the summer of 2011 and 2012, involving 10,000 young people

Community Organisers
Over the lifetime of this parliament, the Community Organisers programme will identify, train and support 5,000 people who want to make a difference to their community. The organisers will have strong understanding of local needs and will catalyse social action.

Community First
Community First is a new fund that will encourage social action through new and existing neighbourhood groups. The fund will empower people in areas with high levels of deprivation and enable them to take more responsibility for their communities.

The ‘Big Society’ and community

Do communities have enough power to manage their own needs? Not a chance in this society, even if they were ‘given’ the power there would be so many restrictions, regulations, red tape and hoops to jump through it would make it impossible to truly exercise control and power. And as soon as anything seemed to be really demonstrating power the government/State would panic that the community had ‘too much’ power, and come rushing in to stamp down on it out of fear of losing control!

Who should be responsible for the needs of communities? The communities themselves, or is it the responsibility of central government and local authorities? Where possible everyone should try to accept at least a degree of responsibility for their own needs, starting at the level of the individual, and then the community should be able to assist and support individuals and groups to achieve their needs. However, overall local authorities and the government have the should have the responsibility to ensure that communities have the ability to cater for their needs by providing access to education, training, funding and whatever other resources are required to give the community the power to look after its needs.

Do you think the ‘Big Society’ is going to change our society? If so, will it be for the better, or for the worse? I don’t think it will actually make a huge difference in either direction, not because it is a bad or idea or anything like that but more because each successive government that gets elected implement changes that take longer than the term for which they are in power, and there is no guarantee the next elected party will retain the idea, at the least they may make such dramatic changes to it that it renders it incapable of fulfilling its original aims. Big society seems to be the kind of ‘project’ that would fall foul of this and other problems that prevent it from having any lasting impact.

Have you heard of the Localism Act which was passed by the coalition government in late 2011? Please share any thoughts about this act. I had not heard of the act, so I decided to look it up. From a quick read it is about decentralisation of power from central government to local authorities and communities to allow them to have more say and flexibility in the way things are run locally. In principle this seems like a good idea, but how it will pan out in reality remains to be seen…

The Localism Act 2011

Official summary:

To make provision about the functions and procedures of local and certain other authorities; to make provision about the functions of the Local Commission for Administration in England; to enable the recovery of financial sanctions imposed by the Court of Justice of the European Union on the United Kingdom from local and public authorities; to make provision about local government finance; to make provision about town and country planning, the Community Infrastructure Levy and the authorisation of nationally significant infrastructure projects; to make provision about social and other housing; to make provision about regeneration in London; and for connected purposes.

To find out more about the Act I recommend this plain English guide: http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/localgovernment/pdf/1896534.pdf

Part 2 of this topic coming soon…

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