Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Round-up: The Big Society in Berkshire

#BS - Prime Minister David Cameron's has undertaken a major relaunch of his Big Society scheme following the withdrawl of Liverpool City Council as one of the four pilot areas.

Conservative MP for Wokingham, John Redwood, offers the veiled criticism that more effort are needed to fully explain the idea that "the public good can be furthered by private and voluntary action" in addition to support from the public purse.

Now local commentators have pitched in.

Former Reading Mayor, Labour's Cllr Chris Maskell enthusiastically supported the decision by his colleagues in Labour-run Liverpool.

He describes coalition spending cuts as "brutal slash and burn" and "politically-driven," before quoting the central political question at the heart of the debate as posed by Liverpool's Cllr Ian Anderson in his letter to Mr Cameron (though it's not quite as rhetorical as intended):
"How can the city council support the big society and its aim to help communities do more for themselves when we will have to cut the lifeline to hundreds of these vital and worthwhile groups?"
Berkshire's Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead is one of the three remaining councils involved in the pilot scheme seeking to give community groups and volunteers more control over local services.

RBWM leader, Cllr David Burbage, has been a leading spokesman for his party on the Big Society, 'bullishly' defending the policy.

Cllr Burbage wasn't surprised that Liverpool decided to step back. He argued the Prime Minister's personal commitment to the policy made the matter a 'political football' subject to partisan manoueverings.

On his own blog he attacks opposition detractors - specifically shadow frontbencher Ed Balls - for making a 'simplistic' assertion that sustainable communities must depend upon taxpayer funding to ensure fairness. He cites Francis Maude MP who claims as many as 3 out of 4 voluntary organisations recieve no statutory funding whatsoever.

But retiring chief of Community Service Volunteers, Dame Elizabeth Hoodless, notably spoke out against the plans, claiming the government had no real strategic vision and that it was subject to the deficit reduction plans which are undermining the policy before it has even begun.

Cllr Burbage counters this with the argument that unecessary dependance on the nanny state is more damaging to individual life chances than the loss of unaccountable services.

On the other side of the county Conservative leader of West Berkshire Borough Council, Cllr Graham Jones offered to step into the breach left by Liverpool. He said,
"We are well placed to join the scheme as we already have Beacon Status for our Parish Plan programme, and have many other relevant projects doing extremely well around the district." 
He cited the Greenham Common Trust, the Volunteer Centre West Berkshire and the Greater Greenham Project as examples.

Meanwhile Thatcham LibDem Paul Walter is sceptical about the overall impact of the policy, pointing out there is something ironic about the use of initials 'B.S.'.

He calls it little more than a slogan: "It is a label to pull together a rag-bag of things that would be happening anyway." Paul advises LibDems to support no more than is sensible, such as the Big Society Bank (set up with £200m contributions from the bailed-out banking sector).

Labour activist Richard McKenzie is less kind in his attempt at wit, describing the policy as 'complete BS'.

He identifies the fact that less-organised and less-articulate members of lower classes have less time and opportunity to take up the mantle of running community services for themselves (such as libraries) and are therefore more vulnerable to a shift in service provision from state to voluntary sector. However, an earlier post seems to offer the clearest articulation of his true feelings.

In local news the high-profile campaign to save Windsor Fire Station night operations came under focus yesterday as Royal Berkshire Fire Authority met to discuss the £1.48m budget cut it faces.

Windsor Fire Station has been trumpeted by Cllr Burbage's RBWM as an example of the Big Society in action where greater community involvement can save a public service, but with understandable backing from the Royal Family and a range of celebrity supporters who live in the area this may be considered an exception, rather than the rule.

Elsewhere I consider the context of the proposals and conclude Cameron's Big Society is "starting to look less like a glorious 'vision' or a vicious 'mask' and more like a desperate 'stop-gap'."


Update: Scaryduck satirises the proposed initiatives.

Alistair says, "It's all rather laudible axing these public services and putting them into the hands of a keen band of volunteers." So to do his bit and help out the NHS, he offers to take up a scalpel and work as a doctor - luckily he's watched enough Casualty to know one end of a cadaver from the other!

Oranjepan asks:
Is a bigger society a better society?


  1. Surely it's self evidently true that a Big society in the sense of lots of people doing lots of good things is better.

    The real question is whether the government's policies are helping or hindering this. I would say definitely the latter.

  2. On the face of things it's impossible to disagree, but is it ever that simple?

    The first thing to ask is whether these 'good' things are at the expense of 'necessary' things. Then there are a range of more specific procedural issues such as prioritisation of services and questions of accountability.

    The main example given here does suggest it is an idea which can work well where there are high levels of philanthropy and community engagement - so Windsor is an obvious area to start. But in former industrial cities with a historic legacy of deprivation, such as Liverpool, or in disconnected dormitory towns along the commuter belt the challenge is that much greater.

    I actually have quite a lot of time for the idea, but the reality of making a success of it will require a lot of tailoring to local conditions - and that means a huge amount of political capital and public goodwill must be invested. The fact of polarising opinion regarding the coalition creates conditions where this is unlikely to be forthcoming.

    Are government policies hindering greater uptake of 'Big Society' ideas? Well, it might be politically beneficial to demand quid pro quo over best practise, but if you want to see results you have to lead by example.


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