Conceptual spaghetti: or why the Big Society won’t work.

It’s been over three years now since the Big Society was first launched at the Hugo Young Lecture in December 2009. Since that time there have been countless articles dissecting David Cameron’s flagship idea, and it’s fair to say that the majority of these articles have been negative. In some respects the Big Society is a blank canvas onto which various parties have projected their own fears. The lack of a clear message from Number 10 means that in some quarters it is seen as little more than a joke.

But this is a naive view: at it’s best the Big Society can be seen as an inducement for citizens to volunteer and do good, but at it’s worst it is a dangerous gamble predicated on the hope that the third sector can provide core public services. More often than not policies such as these are simply regarded in functionalist terms as indicative of cuts to public expenditure. Indeed it is now an established argument to see the Big Society as an ideological fig-leaf used to cover up the deep and destructive spending cuts currently being implemented (Corbett & Walker, 2012). An agenda it may be, but the Big Society suffers from it’s own problems too.

Alan Ware (2012) has contended that the implementation of the Big Society faces three central problems. Foremost amongst these is cost – it would be easy to assume that a policy that relies heavily on philanthropy and voluntary work, would not find funding an issue. However the costs incurred by establishing and maintaining an infrastructure are significant – most likely more than the savings from streamlining the ‘Big State’. Liverpool’s high profile withdrawal as a Big Society vanguard area was indicative of the problem, with the city council claiming that reductions in government spending were forcing cuts in the voluntary sector just at the point at which funding was most required.

Previous experiments with a Big Society-style social policy agenda, in China and the United Kingdom, suggest that unless a radical revamp of the current project is forthcoming, including a major injection of public expenditure, it is likely to be a big waste of time and a major diversion from the urgent need for public investment in deprived communities.

Corbett and Walker (2012: 491)

Second, since resources are not evenly distributed – the infamous postcode lottery – coverage in service provision is a problem for any government. It is likely that alongside the Localism Act, the Big Society will compound local deficits in services, since neighbourhood populations with higher income and more leisure time will be more able and probably more inclined to participate, leaving deprived areas to fend for themselves. Ware’s final problem regards the Government’s desire to cut red tape. This is an admirable idea, cutting bureaucracy so that local initiatives can be freed to meet the local communities needs. Supporting local social enterprises that are better placed to listen and respond to community needs makes a lot of sense, however much of the red tape the Government wants to remove is there with good reason. It is one thing to announce the intention and another to adequately demonstrate how communities can be freed from proper safety legislation and third party insurance. In a similar vein, it is hoped that a reduction in regulatory functions will help restore power to local communities, these include the abolition of:

    • Regional Spatial Strategies and Infrastructure Planning Commission – returning housing development and planning to council level
    • Standards Boards – which regulate the activities of elected councillors
    • the Audit Commission and affiliated performance network
    • Comprehensive Area Assessment
    • the Place Survey including the National Indicator Set (NIS)

All these mechanisms are to be replaced by a power of general competence, whilst local authorities will be expected to develop self-styled performance indicators. This may suit individual authorities it does beg the question of how performance will be assessed between councils with no centralised mechanism. The NIS was by no means perfect but the collected information on 18 national indicators of importance to local citizens did provide a reference point to analyse local performance that was comparable throughout the UK. Only through employing nationally established indicators that addresses inequality will true civic engagement be allowed to prosper. This would have to include an agreement on national standards, regulation of key services and redistribution of resources – none of which are part of the Big Society or localism rhetoric.

Beyond this, it is necessary that the communities in question possess certain characteristics that allow power to be devolved to local level. A communal identity provides patterns of interaction between residents and local authorities therefore creating a foundation for joint action. This identity can only be derived from stable populations – a situation that is no-longer commonplace in Britain due to increasing levels of migration and social mobility. Similarly there needs to be institutional structures through which a collective identity can be developed and local initiatives established. This condition is not met in many parts of Britain today, a situation only likely to get worse with the swingeing cuts to council spending budgets.

Perhaps more serious than this, is the Coalition’s failure to acknowledge the interdependence of state and society (Sullivan, 2012: 145). This argument has been made elsewhere, with the Coalition accused of misconstruing the state/civil society relationship as a ‘zero-sum game’, where less state activity necessarily equates to more civic activity, or vice versa. However this over-simplification is confounded by the convoluted nature of the Big Society’s conceptual baggage:

The ideological basis of these changes can be found in two competing streams of Conservative thinking; the one-nation Conservatism associated with Tory governments up to the 1970s, and the new right ideology of free markets and individualism most closely associated with the Thatcher governments of the 1980s. Added to this mix are New Labour legacies around the role of civil society in community wellbeing, alongside a weakly articulated Liberal Democrat tradition of liberalism-cum-community politics.

Lowndes & Pratchett, (2012: 32-33)

It is this divergent mix of political conservatism and liberal ideals that forms the foundation of the Big Society. The accumulation of all these competing voices can be termed Red Toryism (Blond, 2010), compassionate Conservatism, or neocommunitarianism (Davies, 2012) – the outcome is the same: a plate of conceptual spaghetti where you can pull at any one strand, but you never untangle the whole dish. I think this will cost Cameron his Big Society. The conceptual baggage is not just a problem for academics to wrangle with, it has much wider implications. It means there is no clear message, no central idea for society to get its hands on – and ultimately, if people do not know what the Big Society is, then how can they build it?

References

Blond, P. (2010) Red Tory: How Left and Right have Broken Britain and How We can Fix It, London, Faber & Faber.

Corbett, S. & Walker, A. (2012) ‘The Big Society: Back to the Future’, The Political Quarterly, Vol. 83 (3), pp487-493.

Davies, W. (2012) ‘The Emerging Neocommunitarianism’, The Political Quarterly, Vol. 83, (4), pp767-776.

Lowndes, V. & Pratchett, L. (2012) ‘Local Governance under the Coalition Government: Austerity, Localism and the ‘Big Society’’, Local Government Studies, Vol. 38 (1), pp21-40.

Sullivan, H. (2012) ‘A Big Society needs an active state’, Policy & Politics, Vol. 40 (1), pp145-148.

Ware, A. (2012) ‘The Big Society and Conservative Politics: Back to the Future or Forward to the Past?’, The Political Quarterly, Vol. 82 (1), pp82-97.

By Matthew Wargent.
You can find out more about Matthew on our contributors page.

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