The Big Society has been back in the news in recent weeks – following the publication of a report denouncing the project as ‘an initiative for the leafy suburbs’, and a vague initiative at that. So what exactly does ‘Big Society’ entail? According to the policy, launched in 2010 by David Cameron, it involves three pillars; enabling people to shape their local area, opening up public services provision to charities, and levels of ‘social action’ such as volunteering. But this doesn’t tell us the whole story.
The recent independent audit found what it described as a ‘Big Society gap’ based on income, age and ethnicity. A recent Guardian article noted, for example, that whilst 78% of people in the most affluent communities believe their neighbourhood pulls together, only 51% or people in the most deprived areas agree. Similarly, only 55% of 16-24 year olds believe that their neighbourhood pulls together, compared to 73% of over 65’s.
The report itself recommends “If the Big Society is to succeed, the Government must do more to work with the voluntary sector to build a common vision and goals”. But a common vision and goals are unlikely to achieve much without concrete support to back it up, and a focus on localism and encouraging local activism in the most disadvantaged areas. If the public is to back the ‘Big Society’, it needs to understand exactly what it is, and to see tangible outcomes, especially for the most needy.
The Big Society has suffered from a lack of coherence, but most importantly the big failure in policy was that Government refused to recognise and celebrate the existing excellence in localism, public service provision led by charities and associated volunteering, other than via a handful of low profile initiatives such as the Big Society awards. If the Government had built from the grass roots up we would have had the potential to create real momentum and to explain the initiative via the celebration of existing success that could be replicated in other communities. The very best social action is driven by seeing work in action – it is only by touching, sensing and seeing initiatives underway that we can inspire communities to follow.
The Trussell Trust foodbanks network is a shining example of such community-driven social action, which flourished before the existence of ‘Big Society’, and will continue to do so, however much the policy is now floundering. This Trust has, since its launch in 2004, trained more than 200 churches to operate foodbanks, and relies on donations from local schools, businesses and individuals, which are then distributed to people in crisis through its volunteer-run foodbanks. Without taking credit for the excellent work they undertake, it is charities like this which the Government should be using as examples to inspire people into social action and volunteering.
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