A tale of two councils
Following on from Stephanie Smith’s recent post, here are some thoughts on the meaning of the Big Society and its application by local authorities. I’d be very interested to know what you all think…
The Big Society is a high-profile, if not very well explained or understood, idea that has the potential to benefit communities across the UK. But it risks being devalued as a concept because it is open to interpretation by the councils that will implement it, and because it is seen as ‘Conservative property’. Both these things need to change if it is to survive and flourish in the way it should. Let me explain.
As I understand it, the Big Society idea is first and foremost to empower and engage citizens by giving them influence over local decisions, and to fix problems in society by encouraging people to feel involved in their local community. There has always been an undercurrent of small statism, but the key aim from the public’s point of view is to ‘make life better’.
That’s all very laudable, and it’s certainly a goal worth pursuing. But what matters in the end are not abstract ideas developed by political thinkers but the way in which those ideas are used and implemented on the ground. In this case, that’s going to be heavily influenced by the attitudes and priorities of local authorities.
The Big Society is not primarily, and was not initially, about spending cuts. Despite this, the idea has become linked with cuts in recent months and is being used and invoked in this context in a variety of ways. It’s interesting, and a little worrying.
Right now, the key priority for most councils is not the empowerment of its citizens; it is to cut budgets. Most know they need to reduce spending, and will need to change the way that public services are delivered or procured in the coming years. It’s already clear that there are various ways that councils can do this, driven no doubt by a mix of ideology and local circumstances.
The Big Society is not primarily, and was not initially, about spending cuts. Despite this, the idea has become linked with cuts in recent months and is being used and invoked in this context in a variety of ways. It’s interesting, and a little worrying. Let’s take two examples: Suffolk County Council, and the London Borough of Lambeth.
Much has been written and said in recent days about what Suffolk council is planning, and I don’t want to go over it in detail here. Suffice to say that it intends to shave 30% off its annual budget by becoming a ‘virtual’ or ‘enabling’ council that will work by ‘commissioning services and supporting other organisations, including the voluntary sector, private sector and community groups, to deliver services’, rather than delivering them itself.
Meanwhile, Lambeth council is facing a similar need to cut its budget, but has adopted a rather different approach. It plans to develop a ‘co-operative council’ in which citizens play a more active role in the organisation and delivery of the services they use, and are encouraged to do so by the offer of an ‘active citizens’ dividend’ – which might be a council tax rebate. The council has launched a wiki-style website which allows citizens and officials to discuss and formulate policy ideas together.
These councils obviously face different challenges, and serve different populations. But, fundamentally, which would you say is more ‘Big Society’ than the other?
It seems to me that it is Lambeth’s approach that has the greater potential to fulfil the Big Society’s main objective of empowering and engaging its citizens and thus ‘making life better’ for them, whereas Suffolk has focussed on the small state aspect without so much concern about involving its citizens. Yet it is Suffolk, a Conservative council, that has explicitly aligned itself with the Big Society idea: in the words of Jeremy Pembroke, leader of the council, ‘the coalition requires lesser government and a bigger society, and Suffolk County Council has responded to this.’ Labour-run Lambeth, on the other hand, has explicitly distanced itself from the Big Society: Steve Reed, its leader, believes that its model ‘differs from the Tories’ Big Society because while they want to roll back state, we want to change the role of the state.’
The Coalition has recently unveiled four ‘vanguard’ local authorities which are intended to pilot and champion Big Society ideas. But the Big Society is instead being defined by the actions and endorsements (or lack of them) of councils such as Suffolk and Lambeth, and the government risks losing control of it. The concept needs some substance and neutrality before it’s too late.
Isn’t it odd that a council that defines its plans in opposition to the Big Society seems likely to come closer to achieving Big Society ideals than a council that claims to be acting in its name? But it does make sense if you consider two things: the great and continuing uncertainty about what the Big Society means ‘on the ground’; and the fact that it is a politicised idea.
In the absence of any kind of road map (or even oral directions) for achieving the Big Society’s community goals, it’s not surprising that more obvious aspects and associations such as rolling back the state and cutting services assume centre stage. And as long as the Big Society is ‘owned’ by the Conservatives, their councils are going to trumpet it while opposing councils are going to shy away from it even if they agree with its ideals and plan to achieve them on their own terms.
This is not merely an interesting scenario; it suggests to me that the Big Society as originally conceived is in jeopardy even before it gets going. If councils which endorse it do so primarily to legitimate a move towards a smaller state, and councils which support its community ideals refrain from endorsing it for political reasons, there is a danger that the Big Society will be devalued as a concept, and its association with those community ideals will be weakened. That would be a pity, because the Big Society is a high-profile idea that is here to stay, and it would be nice if it could be used to promote community engagement and empowerment rather than efforts to reduce council headcount.
The Coalition has recently unveiled four ‘vanguard’ local authorities which are intended to pilot and champion Big Society ideas. But the Big Society is instead being defined by the actions and endorsements (or lack of them) of councils such as Suffolk and Lambeth, and the government risks losing control of it. The concept needs some substance and neutrality before it’s too late. Discuss!