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Is the Big Society the good society?

Dave Clements

Mayor Boris Johnson recently bantered good naturedly on affordable housing with some unhappy (i.e. unelected) BNP hecklers. I was in Barking as he steered an unsatisfactory course between condemning the previous government’s “disastrous” immigration policy while putting the narrow economic case for an asylum amnesty. But it was Cllr Phil Waker, Cabinet Member for Housing at Barking & Dagenham that got my attention.

Whilst I’m not one to romanticise council housing, I was encouraged by his welcome of the return of the “right to build” and with it the devolved funding he expected Boris to lobby for. While housing associations are remote and unaccountable, he said, you can at least ‘get rid of us if you don’t like us’.houses 300x204 Is the Big Society the good society?

Waker’s ready acknowledgement of the responsibilities of office, and of his accountability to a much maligned local electorate, was refreshing. Especially given the evasive rhetoric I was becoming accustomed to. In an earlier talk by Jonty Olliff-Cooper, a ‘specialist in the Big Society movement’ and formerly of the Conservative Party Strategy Unit, we were urged to welcome the age of the “listening politician”. Why? Because they ‘don’t need to have the right answer any more’. The retreat of politics is seldom put so bluntly.

The Chief Executive of the RSA, Matthew Taylor, for example, went around the proverbial houses at the launch of a new “vision” for public services.  Speaking as a member of the Commission on 2020 Public Services, he insisted that the days are over when people could just ‘sit back passively’ while the state provided services for them. This was in response to an irate audience member accusing the Commission of an “abdication of responsibility”. Taylor advocates an “active” citizenship where we all muck in and gain a sense of togetherness. A thoroughly Blairite invention, but one that fits just as snugly within Cameron’s increasingly austere Big Society. Whether it’s to balance the books or to civilise the masses, outsourcing responsibility for local services amounts to much the same.

And yet for all the cynical uses to which it is put, I still hold out some hope for the concept of the Big Society. I liked much of what Toby Young has to say regarding free schools, for instance. He makes the case for a classic liberal education, albeit on the ‘boutique’ scale of his proposed West London Free School (as one much-lauded headteacher has sniffily put it). Not a new idea, granted. But a good one. Indeed, Young’s defence of “old school” values is as rare as the empty rhetoric about engaging people and devolving power is commonplace.

However the only way the political class will ever really engage people is by coming up with some ideas of its own, not by delegating the job to us. In the absence of ambitious proposals to rebuild the economy (or at least some houses) the good society will remain as elusive as ever. The flight from responsibility of our elected representatives in the name of the Big Society must be exposed for what it is. And for bucking the trend, Cllr Phil Waker should be congratulated.

Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

Dave Clements is a writer on social policy and co-editor of The Future of Community (Pluto 2008). He is one of the organisers of the Battle for Social Policy, a stand of debates taking place at the Battle of Ideas festival on Saturday 30 October and is chairing the session “Is the Big Society the good society?”.

(Picture:Getty Images)

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  • Jasonsmith17

    It’s interesting to speculate if the Big Society idea will become the latest excuse for not building any houses – that would at least give the idea substance. (Lord) Nat Wei at a tory party conference fringe event said he didn’t know what BS is because that’s for us to decide. I don’t think he had housing in mind though when he expanded his point and referred to street-parties and baby-sitting networks.

  • JohnJustice

    This should be amongst John Rentoul’s questions to which the answer is no. Good societies require adequate public funding of local initiatives and giving people enough time to carry them out not leaving it all for hard pressed families to do.

  • http://twitter.com/ImaginePlaces Angela Koch

    I would be interested to see a debate and a framework developing on how local decision making (referendum style, direct democracy?) will work within the existing structures of our representative democracy. Assuming we will hold on to a representative democracy.

    There is often a significant gap in the view on what needs to be done or what should have priority between those who work locally in communities improving peoples live on the ground and those representing them…. not to mention the low proportion of people (often correlated with economic challenging situations) that actually take part in local and national elections.

    Working in the regeneration and development world I think that we need to be really clear on who can/should decide on what (catalogue of neighbourhood level decisions, local services, city wide infrastructure systems, etc) at the end of a debate and learning process and what role local and city-wide referenda might have in this new localism game plan.

    In a way with every day we don’t decide on this, the expectations of local residents and stakeholders are growing. On that note, the timing of decisions is also relevant when we think about the impacts of city-wide, cityregion-wide regional infrastructure and local neighbourhood level decisions. Making the strategic decisions after the local neighbourhoods have decided what is good for them, can surely not be the intention of the Localism agenda. However, the impression we get from government is that local people will decide what happens in there neighbourhood alone …responsible strategic decisions don’t feature yet in this message. And considering that the regional level will be no longer one could see two scenarios:
    A) All decisions above city-wide level will be taken by central government
    B) No decisions above city-wide level will be taken since consensus is not possible

    (as an example here to be watched: High speed link between London and Birmingham..We know already that the people above and along the proposed line are in the main against it ..they bear high costs but see very little benefit…) How do we decide who’s the looser and who’s the winner to be?

    The government might work on the new rules of the system at the moment however the expectations of THOSE how could see SOME advantages of Localism and Big Society are pretty high and rising with each pound cut off from their salaries and benefits. It is this old principle of a balance between give and take. The exchange rate between acceptable income cuts and newly gained liberties is very volatile. And we need a set of clear processes and rules on a) what is best decided on local neighbourhood level by local people b) what strategic decisions need to remain at City -and City-Region level and c) how the interface between the levels is facilitated. When do we need answers or suggestions on this? I think pretty much now. Referenda at the end of a ‘comprehensive’ public debate on individual decisions with city-wide, regional and national impacts are possible in direct and representative democracies and are, if well conducted, a real effort to make the ordinary person part of the political class.
    There is a real chance that we lose a great opportunity for institutional innovation over the next couple of months..this risk is partly represented by the organised institutions and their likely call to voice discontent on the streets …it’s always easier to be against something than creating something new.

    And as a Swiss Graphic Facilitator told me a couple of days ago… You should only be part of the decision-making if you’ve been part of the learning and reasoning process that led to the formulation of the offered choices that you are asked to decide on. In Switzerland only 25% to 45% of all eligible citizens typically cast their votes during 4 weekends a year. And they doing this since 1890…

  • BridH

    I agree that we need big and inspirational ideas from our politicians not the, mostly recycled, small is beautiful type ones currently on offer with the invitation to make what we will of them, locally. The Public Sector is about to be decimated and while I agree that it desperately needs to be reviewed, a strategy for restructuring it is also needed. But where is that strategy? In the NHS it’s all about devolving responsibility to GP’s and patients. More an abdication of political responsibility I’d suggest.


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