In Liverpool this morning, artistic director of the London 2012 Olympics Phil Redmond welcomed David Cameron to the “people’s republic of Merseyside” to unveil more details on the concept of the ‘Big Society’.
Our guest writer is Gethyn Williams (@gethynwilliams), who has worked in the voluntary and community sector in England and Wales for ten years, and is currently a senior manager in the English voluntary and community sector
In Liverpool this morning, artistic director of the London 2012 Olympics Phil Redmond welcomed David Cameron to the “people’s republic of Merseyside” to unveil more details on the concept of the ‘Big Society’. Having created Brookside and Hollyoaks, Redmond should know a thing or two about communities and teed up the prime minister’s speech by pitching the Big Society as about harnessing positive social energies.
During an election where Conservative candidates found the concept of Big Society difficult to explain, David Cameron was under some pressure to put flesh on the bones of his flagship social policy. He said the Big Society represented a “huge culture change” where individuals no longer turned always to officials or the state to resolve their problems, but felt free and empowered to do something about it themselves.
He called it the “biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from Whitehall to the man on the street”, sought an end to central government micro-management and promised to “turn government on its head” to achieve this. The three big themes to facilitate this transformation, he explained, are: social action (largely the efforts of individuals), public service reform (what communities secretary Eric Pickles later referred to as “kicking the living daylights out of bureaucracy on your behalf”) and community empowerment.
These are to be supported by three mechanisms: decentralisation (what under Labour used to be called ‘double devolution’), increased transparency (largely of information relating to public service performance, enabling individuals to hold them to account) and finance (the pre-announced Big Society Bank, connecting deposits from dormant bank accounts to private capital).
In pointing to concrete examples of Big Society in action there was little new by way of example: the local take-over of parks and post offices, community energy generation and holding the local police to account were all mentioned.
But to push the policy further four ‘vanguard communities’ have voluntarily come forward to test these proposals – Liverpool, Eden Valley, Sutton and Windsor and Maidenhead will each receive support from officials at the Department for Communities and Local Government and resources for a community organiser on the ground.
The prime minister asked:
“What do you want to do?”
“How can we stop stopping you?”
Whilst we wait for those answers (and the government’s responses) we can at least reflect upon what we do know: much of the tone of the Big Society is not new in policy terms – the Labour Government pioneered projects around asset transfer, participatory budgeting and community empowerment.
What does appear new however is the Coalition’s desire to take these discussions outside the fixed structures of Local Government partnerships and to invite solutions direct from individuals and consortia at the grassroots. Whether this takes us more towards the community spirit of Brookside Close or a Dragon’s Den style competition for social ideas remains to be seen.
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