Big Society faces £5 billion of cuts

If the state is not prepared to help build voluntary local capacity in places like Liverpool, then who is? Asks John Popham of the cuts which threaten the "Big Society".

John Popham is an independent facilitator of community-based social media development, and a founder member of Our Society, a network that celebrates people-led local development

The “Big Society” has been much in the news over the past week or so, but not in ways in which its proponents in the coalition government would have liked. Liverpool City Council has pulled out of its role as a Big Society “Vanguard”, while Lord Nat Wei, the big society czar, has revealed that he cannot afford the level of voluntary effort required for the role. It may appear that a tide of negative publicity is threatening to overwhelm the whole project.

When a highly respected charity leader, who had initially expressed enthusiams for the Big Society concept, publicly condemns the way the thing is being carried out, then it begins to look very serious. Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, out-going executive director of Community Service Volunteers (CSV), is the latest voice to express the concern that the extent and speed of the public spending cuts is de-railing the Big Society train.

At the heart of this argument is a strange contradiction. David Cameron argues that the Big Society is about rolling back the state, giving more power to individuals and communities, and creating a society in which people take action to care for each other, rather than abrogating responsibility to government. At the same time, the prime minister argues that the cuts agenda and Big Society are not linked; that they would be advocating greater community control even if they were not having to make cuts.

However, there is an increasing realisation that the cuts make the Big Society impossible to deliver. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the state is being rolled back too fast; even if there were a queue of community organisations waiting to take over the running of former state services, the gap that is opening up is too big for them to fill.

The second reason is that there is increasing evidence that the sector being hardest hit at local level by the cuts is the very voluntary sector that underpins Big Society-type initiatives. As government withdraws funds from local authorities and other public agencies, they often find it easier to pass on a greater proportion of the cuts to the voluntary agencies they fund.

The website voluntary sector cuts has so far recorded more than £40 million worth of cuts to more than 200 voluntary sector organisations. The website relies on those facing budget reductions posting the information on the website, and so the figure represents the lower bound of the effect of the cuts. In fact, we are only part way through the first year of at least three years’ worth of cuts, which are estimated to be worth £4.5 billion or 40 per cent of the sector’s state funding.

At the moment at least, there doesn’t appear to be a queue of wealthy philanthropists waiting to invest in areas such as Liverpool, the one vanguard project which was actually situated in an area of extreme deprivation. If the state is not prepared to help build that voluntary local capacity, who is?

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