When David Cameron’s former speech writer, now a charity CEO, Danny Kruger and I appeared on Radio 4’s Today Programme early in 2011, we both felt Big Society had potential (in the way that my school reports said I had ‘potential’, they’d just not seen evidence of it). The ‘Big Society brand’ was already much maligned, but strip away the labels and the idea that local people and community groups might have a greater degree of control over what happened in there area was something few would argue with.
I was aware at the time that the odds weren’t great. Cuts were starting to kick in and their pace and depth meant conditions were extremely challenging for achieving the ambition that the Big Society rhetoric aspired to.
Fast forward nearly 3 years and this week’s coverage of the Centre for Social Justice’s latest report into the voluntary sector ‘Something’s Got to Give’, makes for interesting reading. The report has been produced by an expert working group chaired by…Danny Kruger.
The report says that smaller charities are losing out to a few larger ones and struggling to survive in the current climate. It identifies regulatory barriers that are adversely affecting smaller groups’ ability to deliver public services, such as the arrangements for transferring staff from a local authority to a charity that takes over the service.
Damningly Danny says that it has been larger private sector companies that have benefitted from Coalition policy:
“The open public services agenda has often involved outsourcing to large commercial firms while small charities have struggled to participate”
There was evidence that many local authorities were giving a smaller proportion of their contracts to the not for profit sector than they had previously (though tellingly many councils did not keep records of this). The report suggests that charities with an income of under £100,000 accounted for just 3.5% of total voluntary sector income, down from 5.6% in 2006. This contrasts starkly with a tiny number of large charities with an income of over £5m each. Though these charities a 1.2% of the total number of charities their income represents almost 70% of total charity sector income.
This is a far cry from the guarded optimism of 2011. Did David Cameron’s Big Society promise us more private sector service delivery? Were we told to expect the gap between the smallest and the biggest charities to grow even wider?
Nope, though many were quick to raise precisely these sorts of concerns from the outset.
A report I produced whilst at Urban Forum, responding to the Big Society in advance of the General Election, noted:
“…the principle of enabling local communities to hold public services to account or to take over their running is positive, provided steps are taken to ensure this does not exacerbate inequalities.” [my emphasis]
I think we can safely say that whatever steps have been taken, they have not been adequate.
It is worth remembering that this is not actually anything new. Smaller community groups have been losing out to the big boys for years – whether from the not for profit sector or the private sector. Not since the days of neighbourhood renewal funding have community groups been supported to even attempt to operate on a level playing field. Labour abandoned that approach long before they lost power and the writing has been on the wall ever since.
David Cameron offered a tantalising glimpse of a change of tack. More local. More grass roots. More power to local people.
Now it seems that door has been firmly bolted and I can’t see it being opened again any time soon.