Over recent weeks Ministers have been at pains to stress the importance of civil society to the Big Society agenda. Local Authorities are being encouraged not to ‘do the easy thing’ and cut funding to the voluntary and community sector in order to meet their challenging spending targets.
So you might have expected to see the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) give a strong signal to local authorities on the importance of working closely with civil society. Their departmental business plan, published on 8th November, sets out their priorities and actions to reinvigorate accountability and local democracy, decentralise power, increase transparency and put communities in the driving seat for local decision making. Great! Who’d disagree with any of those aims? And from where I’m sitting, the voluntary and community sector and social enterprises have a key role to play in achieving that agenda. That’s certainly central to the Big Society vision that is supposed to be driving government policy.
And yet DCLG’s plans are incredibly (and frustratingly) light on references to civil society. Nowhere is this more evident than in the plans for the £1.4bn Regional Growth Fund (RGF). The business plan states that the RGF will be used ‘to encourage private sector enterprise…make the transition to sustainable private sector-led growth’. They repeatedly talk about private sector enterprise. They never, not once, talk about the social economy or civil society.
Perhaps I’m being unduly harsh and that this doesn’t matter. However the Department have already ‘got form’ having failed to make any mention of a role for charities and social enterprises in the invitation to establish LEPs. This led Decentralisation Minister Greg Clark to try to allay sector concerns by stating that not-for-profit organisations would be welcome participants in LEPs. But, given the already rushed timeframe, the damage was already done and now we’re seeing very little meaningful civil society involvement in the first round of LEPs.
And if that’s not enough to convince you, then a closer inspection of the Department’s business plan reinforces the point. There’s no role for voluntary and community groups in holding the state to account through the use of government data being made available – though private and public sector bodies both get a mention. Even in the area of planning reform, where communities (and particularly neighbourhoods) are to be given a much stronger role in shaping their local area, there’s only a fleeting reference to ‘newly formed neighbourhood forum’.
Some may argue that in the new ‘non-directive’ world, where central government will no longer dictate to localities, that it goes against the grain to articulate a specific role for the not-for-profit sector. However this argument holds no water, as there are repeated references to the private sector’s role, so why not be similarly unambiguous about a role for charities, community groups and social enterprises?
Central government, even within a new climate of localism, sets the tone for policy and practice and (when it chooses) shows leadership. DCLG was one of the first bodies to practice what it preached on transparency by publishing expenditure over £500, when it asked Local Authorities to do the same. And yet on a greater role for civil society to deliver the Big Society, the signals coming out of the Department completely undermine the rhetoric. The Prime Minister recently called on charities and voluntary groups to ‘red flag’ poor practice and make sure it does not go unchallenged. Well, I would like to red flag the Department for Communities and Local Government for their poor practice in utterly disregarding the not-for-profit sector as a stakeholder in delivering Localism and Big Society.
The DCLG business plan, plus those for other government departments can be found on the new Number 10 transparency website: http://transparency.number10.gov.uk/transparency/srp/
 Cited on Cabinet Office website: http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/newsroom/news_releases/2010/101103-managing-cuts.aspx