There are many soundbites and much rhetoric on the ‘big society’. Organisations as varied as the National Housing Federation and the UK Contractors’ Group are making it their business. The coalition government is starting to implement big society initiatives such as a national citizenship programme and a ‘right to provide’. We already have twelve ‘pathfinder mutuals’ and ‘four vanguard communities’. And the government is making it increasingly apparent that good practice guides and toolkits for bewildered and confused officers, councillors and citizens will not be making an appearance. The Big Society is what communities will make of it – and as we know – they come in vastly varying shapes and sizes.
So what does this mean on the ground for communities and individuals struggling to cope with the recession and the impact of the public expenditure cuts? Far from ‘never having it so good’ some areas never benefited during the long economic boom. In parts of Hull, communities are now faced with the cancellation of the first major regeneration programmes for decades with the abrupt ending of the government’s housing market pathfinder funding. There are no transitional arrangements resulting in an inability to even complete schemes where contracts are in progress. Big society has a very hollow ring to it for residents in these areas!
Nevertheless, Hull has not waited for top down guidance on big society. It ran an intensive two-day programme involving over 130 individuals and organisations ranging from the business sector and social enterprises, the voluntary sector, councillors and officers through to young and older people and community representatives. It was carried out by a team of independent facilitators, who were not seen as peddling the Big Society, or were any part of central government machinery. The team was led by the Institute of Community Cohesion (iCoCo). Their role was to listen to what the people of Hull thought big society meant to them, what they were doing already that contributed to the concept of a Big Society, how potential could be creatively unlocked to do more, and importantly what messages did the people of Hull want taking back to the government.
The majority of participants were initially sceptical about the big society. They had experienced too many new ideas, such as the ‘third way’, from politicians. They were suspicious that this was just another initiative but with an added concern of it degenerating into running public services ‘on the cheap’. However, once people had aired their concerns there was a real sense of pride in individual projects and neighbourhoods as well as city-wide projects. This highlighted that there was a depth and diversity of community initiatives. Successful projects are in areas that have been labelled by the media as ‘write-offs’. These developed over a long period of time with many ups and downs. They have become aligned with major capital projects such as the housing market pathfinder programme. The facilitators were frequently told that there were no quick wins and resources and a supportive infrastructure are essential.
This represents a fundamental challenge to the coalition government politicians wanting successful local outcomes with minimal resources. Big society risks being meaningless and could erode communities rather than build them unless there is a national commitment to support existing and new programmes that can illustrate sustainable community outcomes.