Liverpool and the Merseyside Network for Europe played host to our most recent Big Society seminar. And although I keep thinking I’m going to struggle to find something new to say about each seminar, I am pleasantly surprised to find new issues, priorities and themes emerging from the discussion.
Like Leicester the day before, the mood was more upbeat than some of the previous events. I am wary of drawing too many conclusions from these seminars as they are obviously dependent on the people who come, local circumstances and a host of other factors. Nonetheless, they’ve given me a really good insight into what’s happening on the Big Society frontline.
There was, as you would expect, talk of cuts, though fewer people referred to these having already impacted on them. Perhaps the North West’s public agencies have managed to protect voluntary and community sector funding more effectively than in other areas, but there was definitely less evidence of budgets being cut so far…but people certainly had a clear sense of what was coming.
Nevertheless there was a strong realisation that the sector had to change and, whether we liked it or not, cuts were coming and we had better get ready to adapt or die. Like everyone else, people were trying to get a handle on precisely what the Big Society is really about. After my presentation (and my assessment that it is more usefully regarded as a framework and vision than an action plan), I got the sense that people recognised the opportunity and the need to shape it in ways that are meaningful to us.
There was a strong recognition that the sector needs to be proactive in developing ideas and solutions about how the Big Society could be in their areas, rather than waiting to be told how it will be. We sit back and wait to be told at our peril.
A number of questions were asked about the role of local authorities, councillors and local strategic partnerships (LSPs). [In fact, probably the most frequently asked question across all these events has been ‘what will happen to LSPs?’ – to which my answer is, that they have no legal basis, so can’t be abolished…so they will continue to exist at the discretion of the local authority. However the continued support for Total Place and ‘place based budgeting’ mean there will be an ongoing need for local partners to work closely together.] And of course, the answer is, we don’t really know what role local government is expected to play in the Big Society. There is a real lack of clarity over the role of local government in the current Big Society programme, which is highly problematic.
Certainly the participants in Liverpool saw their councillors as being crucial in enabling and supporting the realisation of the Big Society, something government would be well advised to incorporate into their thinking. As community leaders they are well placed to overcome obstacles by navigating decision making processes, unlocking resources and providing political support. But that doesn’t mean we can overlook tensions that exist too between the VCS and local government – developing relationships and building trust takes time. Those localities with strong commitments to partnership working will be far better placed to respond to the current challenges and deliver the Big Society vision in the future. LSPs were seen by some as the route to ‘getting round the table’ with local government and working together on Big Society, and where areas have invested in their LSP and it is working well, I think this will prove to be correct.
There seemed to be consensus over the need to be proactive in putting forward our ideas and practical suggestions as to how Big Society could work in our areas. The best example of this was from the Wirral where local voluntary and community sector reps have taken it upon themselves to get together and develop their plans and vision and to present this in a spirit of collaboration to the local authority. I think this is absolutely the right approach to take. Councils, like civil society, are grappling to make sense of, and to respond to, Big Society, as well as having to make cuts and savings. Any assistance we can offer local government will, I suspect, be well received, if it is creative, constructive and practical. And the rewards for strong collaboration between voluntary and community organisations and local government (as well as the private sector and other public sector bodies) will be considerable, particularly in the long term as the economy eventually recovers.
We know that the cuts will in many instances be removing funding from programmes and organisations that can help deliver Big Society. It will be harder to achieve and it will take longer as a result. Not every organisation will survive. But we need to take a long term view over Big Society as we will not really be able to judge how successful it has been until ten or twenty years from now. But its success depends in no small part on engaging local authorities in the process and clarifying their central role in enabling it.