Big Society has failed those it promised to help

Despite Cameron's promises we are heading towards a more divided society


David Cameron’s flagship policy – at the outset of his premiership at least – was the Big Society. That is officially in tatters today following last week’s report by the Civil Exchange think-tank.

The Big Society figures so little in government thinking these days that the national media, with the exception of the Guardian, failed to cover the launch of the Civil Exchange’s highly valuable ‘Final Big Society Audit’ when it was published a week ago.

This is a shame, as the report dissects the performance of the ‘Big Society’ initiative and concludes that it has largely been a failure, despite some interesting innovations, in the face of the mounting crisis created by five years of austerity and ill-thought through and mean welfare reforms aimed at the most vulnerable.

As the report states in its foreword:

“The Big Society has failed to deliver against its original goals. Attempts to create more social action, to empower communities and to open up public services…have not worked. The Big Society has not reached those who need it most. We are more divided than before.”

Civil Exchange goes on to chronicle how fewer people can influence local decisions since a market-based model for reforming public services is concentrating power in the hands of new ‘quasi-monopoly’ private sector providers rather than local people or mutuals.

A ‘race to the bottom’ on outsourced public service contracts, driven by the market model that has come to dominant such transactions, is leading to problems of capacity, delivery and quality – especially in health and social care services.

A more divided society resulting from those at the bottom bearing the brunt of austerity, as the Institute of Fiscal Studies has calculated, growing inequality and the retrenchment of local authority services have all eradicated any chance of a progressive devolution of power to those communities which would benefit most – a key objective of the Big Society.

Recent surveys of social tenants, among some of the most deprived in the country, by the Human City Institute show the inability of the Big Society to ameliorate the mounting pressure tenants are under just to make ends meet because of stagnant wages, frozen or capped benefits, rapidly rising living costs and the perils of high-cost credit.

For example, the average tenant’s net household income is just £152 per week. Yet tenants’ incomes, eroded by inflation, have fallen by one fifth in real terms since the financial crisis hit in 2007.

This is because the rate of inflation for household essentials – 47 per cent for fuel and 32 per cent for food – has rocketed compared with the Consumer Price Index of 19 per cent since 2007. Since tenants spend the majority of their incomes on household essentials – more than half on fuel and food – they have been disproportionately affected by the escalating costs of life’s basics.

Unsurprisingly, almost one third of tenants say that their standard of living has fallen in the last two years while half say it has remained the same.

Few have seen improvement. It’s hard to volunteer if you don’t have enough food, live in fuel poverty and are chasing low paid or zero hours jobs.

As Civil Exchange reports, there is equally a ‘Big Society gap’ generated by a failure to target those communities, such as social housing communities, which benefit least from society.

The most disadvantaged communities, northern areas and inner city neighbourhoods the report contends, have the least sense of empowerment, the lowest levels of social action and the worst voluntary sector infrastructure.

Alongside, the Big Society initiative has failed to build strong partnerships with either the voluntary or private sectors. Social investment remains under-developed and so-called corporate philanthropy has failed spectacularly to bride the funding gap left by local government spending cuts.

Only concerted state action to tackle growing poverty and inequality in the UK accompanied by devolution of power to regions, cities and communities can dent the seemingly unstoppable trend towards a more divided rather than big society.

Kevin Gulliver is the director of the Human City Institute and the chair of the Centre for Community Research. He writes in a personal capacity. Follow him on Twitter

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