One participant at the third of our getting to grips with the new government seminars, this time in Exeter, described Big Society as ‘almost a revolution’ – which can be interpreted in a number of different ways. What should not open to interpretation is the radical change facing the voluntary and community sector over the next few years. This is something that in Exeter, as elsewhere, the sector is quickly coming to terms with…
The discussion – which provides a useful snapshot of the mood on the Big Society frontline – was wide ranging and took us from Parish Plans to public sector pensions, from asset development in Sri Lanka to community development in Wiltshire. I did say it was wide ranging! The participants were an extremely knowledgeable bunch and had very detailed policy knowledge, which they used to good effect to challenge me, each other and themselves.
One of the most prominent themes to come out of the discussion was the lack of explicit reference to equalities issues within the Big Society. Yes, of course there’s stuff about inequality and fairness in there, and that’s positive. But that is not quite the same as talking about particular groups within society who tend to be excluded, marginalised and left out. Tackling inequality needs to take as its starting point an understanding of who it is that is currently unequal (and why). The government’s desire to sweep away performance management, which they regard as bureaucratic, makes it far harder to understand precisely what the problems we face are (and to develop appropriate strategies to address them).
A number of studies from, among others the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the House of Commons Library of the recent emergency budget have suggested that many excluded groups, and poor people generally, will bit hit the hardest by measures to cut public spending. Not only do the Chancellor’s words of a ‘fair’ and ‘progressive’ budget ring hollow, but they undermine the credibility of the Big Society agenda, among people who see it as being completely at odds with the impact of the cuts. The indications are that the Equalities Act will be retained by the new government and the recent NHS reform white paper (apparently) included references to the new socio-economic duty. (I say apparently, because I haven’t read it yet, but the very knowledgeable So’Westers reliably informed me it did!). However, we should not be under any illusion… the equalities duties have not, in my personal opinion, led to any huge change in the experience of ethnic minorities or women.
The retention of equalities legislation is good but needs to be used to hold policy makers to account. The impact of the cuts on poor and excluded groups is difficult to reconcile with the Big Society rhetoric of fairness. As I have said previously, the government faced some extremely difficult decisions on economic policy, but their decisions indicated they were not prepared to ensure the burden was spread equitably among rich and poor. Raising VAT, rather than using income tax to increase tax revenue, indicates that they are comfortable with a disproportionate burden being placed on the shoulders of poor households. This, combined with cuts to public services that poor households rely on which will not be fully known until the spending review is announced, illustrate the tensions between the Big Society and economic policy.
And that is really the greatest challenge that David Cameron and his colleagues face in building widespread public support for the Big Society agenda. The credibility of the Big Society is significantly undermined by the impact of economic policy on charities and voluntary groups, as announcements of cuts to funding emerge on an almost daily basis. Not to mention increased demand for services as welfare reform, rising unemployment and public spending cuts will drive more people into hardship and seeking services and support from charities. The recent decision in Croydon (which not too long ago was awarded Beacon status for their relationship with the voluntary and community sector) to slash their support for the sector by almost two-thirds, indicates just how bad things are going to be in many areas.
The spending cuts were never going to be easy, but that makes it even more critical that they are taken in a deliberative and considered way to ensure decisions do not hit the poorest hardest and create more problems in the long term. This requires long-term thinking and a strong vision. Many of us hoped that Big Society offered such a vision and approach, but the signs are that long term thinking is not much in evidence at the moment and the risks are that Big Society will be consigned to the ‘Big Policy Dustbin’ before it’s even had a chance to succeed.