Can the Big Society cut it in an age of austerity?

According to minister for civil society, Nick Hurd, the Big Society is now at “delivery stage”. However, far from Whitehall, in local communities in Haringey and Birmingham research by the New Economics Foundation (nef) with local people has shown that tensions are emerging between the Big Society and the cuts. Indeed, there is fairly widespread confirmation of the fear that the new austerity measures will make realising the best of the Big Society agenda practically unworkable.

In particular three concerns are being voiced:

1. Living standards are falling fast – especially for already disadvantaged groups
People’s ability to earn and maintain a basic income, through employment or benefits, is being increasingly reduced. Most people interviewed so far are unemployed themselves, or identified it as a significant challenge in the local area. Many others are being affected by pay freezes, pay cuts, and reduced working hours. One man we met has been forced to busk on the weekend because changes to his wife’s Disability Living Allowance have left them so short of cash, while another man is being offered work at £4.50 an hour – well below the national minimum wage.

There has also been a significant rise in the number of public sector professionals who are now seeking employment and benefits support; the majority are women. Young people, the elderly, those with disabilities and those who receive support from very niche services are also witnessing a dramatic withdrawal of the local organisations, benefits, and services that support them.

As one interviewee noted: ‘People will be focusing on their basic needs, shelter, food and family; you become more inward looking rather than outward looking and concerned about the community. All of your energy is taken up just surviving and holding it together.’

2. The people and places that make communities work are disappearing.
The third sector is often portrayed as the bedrock of local community action, and yet it is experiencing a huge loss in income and support. While it is accepted by many that money alone could never be a solution to local issues, there is a palpable sense that the cuts are uprooting years of good community development.

Key people are no longer being supported to do their invaluable work, and key places – community centres and the like – where people used to come together, are being lost. The capacity of small, local organisations to provide services is being compromised by current spending cuts and the lack of clarity over future cuts. In response, some small and medium sized organisations have begun to work together.

However, it is feared that if emerging networks and consortia prove unable to win contracts they will break under the pressures of internal competition. As a result, there are widespread fears that it will be private companies who are in the best positions to win local contracts and determine the future of public service provision.

3. As it stands, the Big Society won’t work for everyone
The impact of the public spending cuts is affecting some groups in society more than others – women, young people, and those with disabilities are some of most impacted. Without the necessary support, many of these groups will be left behind by the Big Society, whose opportunities they are ill equipped to make the most of. If more power is to be devolved to local levels, more care needs to be taken in how that power is distributed or captured.

As one interviewee from Birmingham put it: ‘At the end of the day, the Big Society is fine as an idea, but unless you support and equip people they won’t know how to go about it… then the agenda won’t go anywhere. We are talking about people who are less likely to go out to community meetings, because of fear, language barriers and not knowing how things work. They are the people afraid to open their front door.’

The scale and speed of the cuts are undermining service provision in the most deprived areas of the UK and this is having a negative impact on people’s quality of life. In its current shape and on its current course, the Big Society will fall short of offering a socially just alternative to the provision that is being cut. We think that there are other strategies and options available for communities to make the most of the current context.

We’ll be continuing to work with groups of local people in Birmingham and Haringey to:

  • Explore existing assets and capabilities – the Big Society has failed to recognise and build on local assets. Indeed, because of the cuts many of these are disappearing fast. We want to develop a new conception of local resources and strengths, and put these at the heart of the project
  • Value collaboration over competition – the Big Society is promoting enterprise and competition over collaboration and partnership, and this is helping private companies at the expense of many smaller, local, charities and civil society organisations. Co-production should be championed as a preferred way forward to improve public services – not only between people who get support, and providers, but collaborative models between providers to share experience, resources and opportunities;
  • Provide training and capacity building – the Big Society offers people many new “Rights’’, but is failing to provide the support people need to turn these into tangible opportunities and benefits. We will be providing support to translate the Big Society policies into practice, to identify what the practical opportunities are, and to provide support in accessing these.


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