Big doubts about the “Big Society”

Rural expert Gordon Morris has big doubts about the government's drive for a “Big Society”.



DAVID Cameron’s Big Society speech about liberalism, empowerment, freedom, liberating people from the responsibility-sapping controlling hands of central government, and his intention to bring about the, “… most dramatic redistribution of power from elite in Westminster to the man and woman on the street.”, brought back memories of similar statements equally loaded with abstract nouns and grand intentions.


One’s thoughts turn to memories of double devolution, asset transfer, John Denham’s, David Miliband’s, and Hazel Blears’ talk of localism, and the many other stated intentions to return power to the people, nicely summarised, for example, by egov monitor in 2007.


What on earth does it all mean, not least for those of us interested in rural development? It would be interesting to know how many of the projects offered as examples by the Prime Minister have already been done, if not in the places he mentioned, then in others? Indeed, community-owned pubs and shops, locally-led broadband projects, and affordable housing schemes are just some of the projects that have arisen from, for example, locally-developed market town, parish, and other plans over the years.


And jolly good they are too, as revealed in the many case studies written over the years (decades!) by, for example, the Commission for Rural Communities (a trawl through the internet will quickly reveal many more). While recognising that not all projects succeed, the fact that many do – in spite of adverse odds and various sources of, sometimes local, opposition – suggests that something akin to the Big Society (or simply, society) already exists, and that in some places at least, institutional and bureaucratic obstacles are not insurmountable.


Am I alone in noticing that national politicians of all stripes appear to be willing to devolve power to all manner of groupings (eg communities, neighbourhoods) except local authorities? The Local Government White Paper of 2006 (LGWP 2006) makes only one – passing – reference to Town/Parish Councils, and although the Quality Parish Scheme announced in the Rural White Paper of 2000 (RWP 2000) no doubt helped to strengthen some authorities, it can hardly be said to have transformed the governmental power balance.


It is obviously easier to talk about transferring powers than to get on and do it. In the meantime, talk about transferring powers to amorphous “communities”, rather than to statutorily constituted, if not always wholly democratically mandated, councils must surely help provide cover for what, so far at least, has been a noticeable failure to live up to the rhetoric.


This is depressing, especially in the light of some research I conducted into the Market Towns – community led development – Initiative that was managed by the now deceased Countryside Agency, and the soon-to-be deceased regional development agencies, between 2000 and (about) 2006. This programme, also announced in RWP 2000, stressed the importance of “local partnerships”, rather than town councils, and yet, not surprisingly, the work of partnerships generally benefitted from the involvement and support of all tiers of local government.


There is an irony lurking here. Town Councils, for example, although often political in nature, are also, surely, partnership organizations established specifically to work in, and for, their towns and, by extension, the parishes that surround them.


One cannot help but wonder why, in the search for the holy grail of community development and leadership, and for locals who are involved in, and committed to their town, Councillors have become peripheral, rather than central, community leaders? Surely, if it is to mean anything, the Big Society must be democratic, its actions transparent and widely accountable, its interests equitable, neither vested nor partial, and its activities rooted in organizations that are permanent, not transient.


Numerous approaches to rural (and urban) community development have been tested, trialled, and even “piloted”, over the years. Much has been achieved, catalogued, monitored and reported on, sometimes even evaluated, but often, in terms of learning for wider development, application and benefit, ultimately unexploited. Surely we should try to build on past work, and maximise the effectiveness of existing institutions.


Instead, I fear that we are faced with yet another jargon-laden idea with a headline grabbing title and the potential to confuse, disrupt, and disappoint.


gordonmorris-smallGordon Morris is is a freelance writer, researcher and visiting lecturer in community development at Bournemouth University. He can be contacted at gm@tanglewood.u-net.com.

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