The Big Society was a good enough idea but we didn't put it into practice

Journal columnist George Hepburn on how our attempts to rebuild civil society are floundering

Danny Lawson/PA Wire A food bank
A food bank

I am always delighted to find someone who has read this column and so am overjoyed that all the bishops in the Church of England must have done so.

A fortnight ago, I lamented the lack of any vison, idealism or passion from the major political parties in the run-up to the election. This is exactly what the bishops say in their pastoral letter issued last week.

Remembering how a bishop from an earlier generation, David Jenkins, commented that “generally speaking, bishops are generally speaking” I approached the report with some trepidation. It is high level stuff with references to particular policies carefully worded and tucked away – whatever the politicians may tell you. On nuclear weapons, for example, the bishops only ask for an honest and public debate on their relevance today.

But I thought the generalities were rather good. The central section argues for more inclusive, self supporting communities rather than “ a society of strangers”. Both William Beveridge and Margaret Thatcher, on opposite sides of the political divide, they explain, ”understood that their approaches to the well being of the nation could not succeed unless social relationships were marked by neighbourliness, strong voluntary commitment and personal responsibility.”

Naturally, the bishops see a role for churches to nurture social engagement . I spent an evening last week thoroughly enjoying the annual pantomime at Crawcrook Centenary Church, and couldn’t agree more. Churches provide long term social support to their members and spread out into the community in all sorts of ways – as sponsors, for example, of West End Refugee Service.

They are one of the pillars of civil society that include housing associations, credit unions, citizens advice, active age and so on. The intriguing question is how such voluntary and community organisations are supported by government is a way that neither smothers them with regulation or strangles them for lack of funds.

In April, victim support groups will come under the control of the Police and Crime Commissioner. The existing victim support charities will lose their funding and many of the staff fear for their jobs. Whether it is more effective or efficient for victims of crime to be helped by a new team in the Commissioner’s office, is difficult to say. But it is indicative of the way that the state chops and changes the way it supports voluntary activity.

The Conservative party’s great initiative to build civil society was The Big Society. Remember David Cameron telling us shortly after the last election that “we all belong to the same society and we all have a stake in making it better…we are all in this together and we will mend our broken society together.”

It has not worked out too well. The flagship body, Social Network Foundation has been wound up after claims of mismanagement and the term ‘big society’ was last heard in the Prime Minister’s 2013 Christmas message.

In a critical final audit of the scheme, The Civil Exchange think tank finds that Big Society initiatives have not brought people closer together or closed the major gaps in income, wealth and power.

The deficit is worse in lower socio economic groups, among the disabled and ethnic minority groups and in the North. But, the bishops rightly argue, the ideas should not be consigned to the political dustbin.

Iain Duncan Smith was swift to hit back at the bishops. If he also reads this column, let me add that the Big Society drew on the ideas of Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ and that both parties have been rightly concerned to rebuild social capital that has been on the wane over the past generation.

Both parties have wanted to privatise public services in the social care field. HMP Northumberland and the greater part of the former Northumbria Probation Service are now run by a French catering firm called Sodexo. Whatever the intention, only national conglomerates have been able to successfully bid for these contracts as opposed to charities with more of a feel for the local community.

Sunderland was designated a ‘social enterprise place’ last December thanks to the success of Home Care Associates and other groups but, despite loan funding, social enterprises generally have been slow to get going. Greater powers for community groups to take over assets like Jesmond Swimming Pool and the Rose and Crown pub at Slaley have been provided but the potential for such novel ideas has yet to be fulfilled especially in more run down areas.

There is still a strange reluctance in government to devolve power or to work with intermediary organisations to find pragmatic solutions. When a new initiative like foodbanks springs up to meet a need, which is where voluntary organisations are at their best, it is cold shouldered by government because it is not part of a national plan.

Instead, the government has chosen to set up new organisations, like the National Citizens Service, which aims to have 120,000 young people volunteering this summer, rather than work with the existing groups on the ground.

In one year alone under the coalition government, the voluntary sector lost £1.3bn in grants to support its activities. A VONNE survey found that 44% of charities in the North East expected to close a service in the year ahead. With further cuts in local authority spending expected, the prospect of greater support to the voluntary sector is wishful thinking.

Of all the party leaders, only Nicola Sturgeon has made me sit up and take note over the past two weeks. Sadly I cannot vote for her. The Scottish National Party would ease up on austerity and buy a way out of recession.

This could provide the badly needed cash to build civil society but the problems are deeper rooted and badly need the fresh moral vision that the church is calling for. The challenge is still to find ways of translating good ideas like the Big Society into practice around the country.

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