Big Society at Future Communities

June 29, 2011 at 11:54 am | Posted in Events, News | Leave a comment

Big Society New dawn or false hope?

The Big Society- New Dawn or False Hope- by Gary Parker, Chair of Future Communities, a social Enterprise based in London Borough of Bexley.

Commenting on recent announcements concerning the Coalition governments ‘Big Society’ initiative, the Labour leadership contender, David Miliband described it as ‘ground we should never have conceded to the Conservatives’. To this end at least, there is consensus that social action by individuals and community organisations to improve and develop their local communities has all party support.

However to develop such initiatives and projects will require significant changes in government policy and new ways of working in partnership with the community and voluntary sector, particularly by government departments and civil servants, who will have to undertake a much more supportive role to develop the ‘new localism’ agenda, rather than a centralised and more directive driven role.

It is still not clear exactly what the ‘Big Society’ initiative will entail in practise, but an informal network called the Big Society Network (BSN) has been formed and is currently holding a series of ‘round table’ discussions in various parts of the country including London, Bristol and Bradford. The BSN is not receiving any public funding, but is talking to various charitable trusts and other funding organisations on how it might develop its work.

Funding is an issue, recently, Croydon Council in South London cut its direct grant budget to community groups by 66%; it is also likely that local authorities, whatever their political leadership, are likely to make significant cuts in voluntary sector grants, in the wake of the pre- budget statement by the Chancellor George Osborne, in October this year. Already some forecasts have estimated that there have been cuts to national community and voluntary sector funding of over £700 million in the current financial year, so new funding streams and sources will need to be accessed or developed in order to develop ‘Big Society’ projects.

So where does this leave the development of the ‘Big Society’ initiative, a number of so-called‘Vanguard Communities’, were announced by David Cameron in July, which are;

  • Eden Valley (Cumbria),
  • Liverpool,
  • Windsor & Maidenhead
  • Sutton,

A range of projects are being developed including:

  • Community backed affordable housing in Cumbria,
  • Devolved powers to parish councils – Windsor & Maidenhead;
  • Volunteer projects- Liverpool
  • Community hub for young people in the London Borough of Sutton.

While these projects are being supported in the short term by the DCLG, in the long term, even projects run by volunteers will require some funding in terms of support and management of such projects. Given that many agencies who might have supported such projects, such as Primary Care Trusts, Future Builders, Capacity Builders and others are now being abolished or restructured, volunteering, self help and income generation are the only real alternatives. Without some support at local government level the long term development of such projects is open to question in my view.

However the Big Society initiative should not be dismissed purely as a ‘smokescreen’ for public spending cuts, many communities and individuals will welcome the opportunity to develop neighbourhood services and projects, without what many of them see as bureaucratic or centralist intervention by local government and Quango’s. In my view this is a significant initiative and the ‘flag ship’ policy of the new government, which will continue to develop regardless of economic circumstances. How the initiative develops at local level, particularly in disadvantaged areas, were people are unable or unwilling to volunteer or may not have the confidence or skills to do so, remains to be seen.

The strength of this initiative is that if it can genuinely empower communities to take social action, this has the potential to transform these communities and pose some awkward questions for local politicians and local government officers, who for too long have sought to manage community action and development into existing structures and initiatives regardless of neighbourhood circumstances and not always in a true spirit of partnership.

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