David Cameron’s “Big Society” big idea is in trouble. Its critics say it is too vague, little more than a cover for cuts. And there is too little money in the pot to finance the “voluntary sector” and “community involvement” projects the government want.
Cameron was moved to answer his critics in a “big speech” on Monday 14 February.
“Big Society” is not cover for cuts, insisted Cameron, because I’ve been “passionate” about this idea for years. But it seemed like little more than repackaged conservative politics.
Conservatives (and Thatcherite Blairites) have long said they want to break up the “monolithic state”. Under Thatcher and Major this went with driving down public expenditure. Under Thatcher (and Blair-Brown) it went with privatisation.
The accompanying stated intentions — in an earlier era, of introducing efficiencies and better services — have never matched the results. Cameron’s stated intentions, to mend “broken Britain”, seem equally naive.
The right are still doubtful. Melanie Philips in the Daily Mail (15 February) said Cameron will fail because he hasn’t “got the balls” to do what is necessary — dismantle the welfare state and rebind British people together with Christian-inspired values!
The liberal left/NGO managers who see community self-help as a “good thing” (as it could be, if genuinely about self-organisation) will continue to be as disappointed as Liverpool City Council was when pulling out of a Big Society pilot project.
Nonetheless the Big Society may survive as a series of projects cobbled together by local councils, working with “social enterprises” to run pared down services using groups of barely trained volunteers.
In Lewisham, south London such groups have been invited to bid to take over the buildings and services at the five libraries the council wants to get rid of. Such arrangements, if they succeed, will allow the council to say they have not cut the service. But what happens to the service?
None of the bidders want to leave the service intact.
Family Services (bidding for New Cross library) will bring in advice services, and the book service will be run by volunteers. The “new” centre will have to cater for local people suffering from the huge cuts in children’s services.
But if Christ Family Assembly Outreach win the bid, the books will have to make room for literally god knows what!
The Peckham Settlement are bidding and they are a big charity with resources enough to turn a library into a “community resource and learning centre”. But do they have sufficient resources to buy… books? Again the “library” will shrink and it will be run by volunteers.
John Laing may be attractive to Lewisham. They already run Hounslow’s libraries. JL want to create spaces that can attract grants or service fees. That will be rooms for hire and capuccino bars.
All of these projects no doubt will create “community spaces” but for sections of the community — i.e. middle class people who can afford the capuccino, or people looking for god.
But these projects will not preserve well-stocked libraries promoting literacy and learning, organised by people who have spent years studying the best ways to do that.
Libraries can and should be “opened up” to the communities they serve, but that can only be done consistenly on a solid foundation — with resources, books, and people with the skills and knowledge to pass on to others.