Building the ‘Big Society’ – what role for local government?

The ‘Big Society’ agenda is the driving political vision of the coalition government as they seek to redefine and transform the relationship between citizens and the state.

It is primarily being driven forward by key Conservative politicians around David Cameron who originally saw it as a way to empower local communities to tackle Britain’s social problems. However, it is important to understand that a commitment to localism has always been a core part of the Liberal Democrat psyche and the idea that power should pass upwards from local communities rather than downwards from Whitehall is nothing new. Despite this common ground and shared values, there is the potential for tensions to arise around just how much the Big Society is linked to public spending cuts and radical reform of the way public services are delivered.

This agenda has provoked a significant amount of debate in local government circles, as stakeholders across the sector seek to map out how the key themes of citizenship, community empowerment and public service reform will work in practice.  

The context that the sector operates within changed significantly in December 2010 when the coalition government announced the financial settlement for local councils and launched its flagship Localism Bill. The settlement was described by the Local Government Association as the, ‘toughest in living memory’ and leaves councils facing a £6.5bn funding shortfall over the next year. To compound the pain, councils in the most deprived areas of England are going to be hit hardest and fastest by spending cuts. In fact recent analysis shows that there is a direct correlation between the percentage reduction in grant and the local authority ranking on the indices of multiple deprivation.

Over the next few years, local authorities will understandably be focusing on implementing these deeply challenging spending cuts. However, the Localism Bill does begin to flesh out some of the practical ways in which the Big Society could be formulated. The coalition’s whole approach to localism has been presented as representing a radical change from the past with much more emphasis on communities doing things and getting involved in delivering public services themselves. This agenda around reforming the way public services are delivered has major implications for local government and could leave many questioning whether the emphasis in the Localism Bill on divesting public services to social enterprises is actually about bypassing local democracy rather than strengthening it. This is illustrated by Lord Wei, the Government’s Big Society Advisor, who described local government’s role in the Big Society as being to, ‘facilitate most, co-commission and deliver least’.

There are a number of issues raised by the Big Society that cut strategically across everything that local authorities do. If these remain unexplored and unresolved then stakeholders across local government could be left wondering whether the Big Society is more about shifting responsibility for spending reductions than really delivering on local accountability. 

How will the Big Society be resourced?

The impact of deficit reduction measures raise serious questions about how the Big Society will be resourced on the ground. Local authorities will need to invest significant amounts of time and money in order to increase the number of third sector organisations capable of being commissioned to deliver services. At the same time charities are being hit by a range of funding cuts and are warning that this will impact upon their ability to deliver the Big Society.

How can strategic challenges be balanced with neighbourhood demands?

Local government is clearly facing a difficult fiscal reality, which means major challenges at a strategic level. Set in the context of these strategic challenges, the idea of having many different autonomous neighbourhood groups all defending their own interests without giving sufficient thought to the wider area risks severe fragmentation of public service delivery. Questions need to be asked about how local government can ensure an integrated coherent approach with local authorities fulfilling their place stewardship role and wider responsibilities as a community leader.

Is the Big Society the first stage on the road to marketisation and fragmentation of public services?

Running through the whole Big Society agenda and response to the current fiscal situation is an interest in and commitment to mutualism. For instance, The Coalition programme for government committed to empowering public sector workers to form employee owned co-operatives. However, echoing Kerry McCaughie and Mark Bramah’s previous blog posts on mutualism, there is a worry that mutualism could be a staging post to the further marketisation of public services. The government as yet don’t seem to have considered how to prevent further fragmentation of public services and protect social enterprises and co-ops from being bought out by private companies.

What about fairness and equity in service provision?

Key to the Big Society is the idea that government will move aside and let local people get on with things. This raises important questions around how to ensure fairness and equity in service provision. Not everybody has the same capacity to get involved in the Big Society with factors such as time, income and skills all being distributed unequally. This unfortunately risks public money being diverted away from more deprived areas and thus creating a situation where those with the most need; but the least opportunities automatically end up with the worst public services.

Does inequality still matter?

The golden thread running through the coalition’s approach to social policy is a shift away from targeted interventions aimed at tackling deprivation such as the area based grant. This means that the Big Society is weak on tackling inequality and there is a concern that it could actually exacerbate existing inequalities. This causes a problem for local government because as a place shaper and a community leader, some of the biggest issues it faces relate to the need to tackle inequalities. If local government becomes intensely relaxed about inequality then communities and individuals will still have problems that need fixing and will still be reliant on the state.

Do local authorities and local councillors have a role in the Big Society?

The relationship between the Big Society and local government remains unclear and there is very little reference made to local authorities in the Big Society policy documents beyond charities and social enterprises taking over the running of services. This is emphasised by growing concerns that the links between the Big Society agenda and radical public service reform pose real risks to the principles of democratic accountability. For instance, if services become locked into a complex contractual structure then elected members will find it more and more difficult to respond to the concerns of the community by changing service provision. There are also problems with the sheer scale of the Coalition’s plans to divest public services to social enterprises and the voluntary sector. There are very serious issues around how members will scrutinise and hold to account these multiple providers. Surely any devolution of power should be about an enhanced role for elected members at the heart of local communities, rather than scaling back their influence?

Opinions on the Big Society remain divided between those who see it as an opportunity to radically transform social policy and those who see it as a way to deliver public services on the cheap as public spending is cut back. It is an interesting debate and one that local government must engage with or it risks being left behind. However, what is most likely to define the future are the choices that local authorities make both in terms of how they respond to the spending cuts and the vision that local government maps out for itself and its role in local communities ‘beyond the cuts’

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