The new austerity of the Big Society

The Big Society is the social policy that makes the economic policy of deficit reduction possible. The government could not have taken its axe to the public sector with such ruthless confidence without a story to tell about what will fill the gaps left by a retreating state. The Big Society is that story.

Anna Coote is head of social policy at the new economics foundation (nef)

The Big Society is the social policy that makes the economic policy of deficit reduction possible. The government could not have taken its axe to the public sector with such ruthless confidence without a story to tell about what will fill the gaps left by a retreating state. The Big Society is that story.

At one level it is utterly beguiling. It promotes ideas that many of us – not least the new economics foundation – have been advocating for ages:

• More power to citizens;

• Decentralise government;

• Free up ‘civil society’ from rule-bound orthodoxies of the state;

• Let charities do more of what they do well;

• Make better use of everyday human resources.

But the real meaning of the Big Society can only be understood against the backdrop of the spending review:

• Cuts of more than £80 billion;

• A 27 per cent drop in local council budgets;

• £18 billion off the welfare bill;

• The bonfire of the quangos;

• And much, much more…

Together, the spending cuts and the Big Society signal the end of the post-war welfare state. There is a massive shift of responsibility and functions from the state – to individuals, families and communities – and from public services, to self-help, mutual aid, charity, philanthropy, local enterprise and big business

Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s director of strategy, says the aim is:

“… nothing less than to wean this country off its apparently unbreakable dependency upon the state, centralism, welfare, and rule from Whitehall: the corrosive habits of half a century.”

There is certainly a strong case for reforming the welfare state: too many rules and targets; services that make people feel powerless to help themselves; very little success in preventing needs arising; and no success at all in stemming the upward spiralling of costs. So it is time for change. But is the ‘Big Society’ the solution?

This leads to some big questions. First of all, is the Big Society big enough for everyone? We don’t all have the same capacity to participate in local activities. Or the same access to local groups and charities.

Then there’s the question of time. The ‘Big Society’ is all about replacing paid with unpaid labour – on a massive scale. That means people using spare time – of which some of us have lots more than others. If you are a low-paid worker with big family responsibilities, how will you have time to participate in the ‘Big Society’?

People who volunteer and take part in local activities are typically white, older and middle-class. The shift from state to civil society will intensify this pattern. Those who can, will; those who can’t, won’t – those who don’t take part won’t be empowered or reap any benefits.

Meanwhile, poor neighbourhoods, which already rely most heavily on public employment, benefits and services, will suffer most from the cuts. Women, who make up two-thirds of public sector employees, will take the hardest hit.

People without jobs will face a more punitive benefits system and drastically pared-down public services. There will be more polarisation between and within neighbourhoods as the poorest are put to flight in search of affordable accommodation.

These are the conditions in which the ‘Big Society’ is supposed to take root and flourish. Yet the small charities and community groups that are supposed to be its life and soul are already painfully squeezed as council grants and contracts are scaled back. Now they are expected to step in and vastly increase their activities, to help rising numbers of poor, jobless, insecure and unsupported individuals and families.

Meanwhile, who’s out there limbering up, but the big corporates, who are well-placed to move in and gobble up the new contracts. Don’t let’s forget Sir Philip Green’s advice to government – that it should save money through more centralised, large-scale purchasing. We have already seen how big corporate brands can strip the individuality out of our high streets and give us what nef calls ‘clone towns’. Will they do the same for the welfare state?

And who is accountable for what? Without clear lines of accountability, only those who can shout loudest or whip up the most colourful media outrage will get a hearing. To put all this in a nutshell, the Big Society story makes the public spending cuts possible, but the cuts make the best ideals of the Big Society impossible to realise.

nef’s latest publication, ‘Cutting It’, can be downloaded here

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