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Civil society stepping up?

We asked six leading experts to give their verdict on the events of 2011 in the key areas of public services, local economic development, civil society, poverty, sustainability and housing and suggest the way forward in 2012. In the fifth part of the series, Toby Blume catches his breath after a busy year of new ideas and predicts 2012 will be one of action for all those involved in civil society

David Cameron sets out his Big Society vision

This year has seen the continued frenetic change of 2010 and the voluntary and community sector battling to keep up and, in many instances to just stay afloat. But if 2010 was the year of ideas – when the new coalition government began to set out its Big (S……) ideas and ambitions, then 2011 was the year of instigation, with a host of initiatives, programmes and policies being introduced.

We’ve seen the passing of the localism act, one of the lengthiest passages a bill has ever seen through parliament. And despite fierce lobbying from ‘dark forces’, particularly in the House of Lords (draw your own conclusions on that), the majority of the bill managed to survive intact… with the exception of local referenda.

The act introduces neighbourhood plans and three new ‘community rights’ that have the potential to make a big difference to not for profit groups. We will see whether they live up to their potential (sounds like my school reports!) and on their own they won’t change the world, but I think that if there is adequate support to use them they could have a significant impact.

The Office for Civil Society (OCS) has managed to finally get some of its ideas into practice, in a number of instances also after some lengthy delay. And despite Nick Hurd and coalition ministers saying they would not be adopting the previous government’s tendency for ‘initiativitis’, we’ve seen programme after programme being launched. The Social Action Fund, the Community Organisers programme, Community First, Innovation in Giving Fund, National Citizens Service and even Big Society Capital (which has been about five years in the making) have all begun.

And of course, everything is taking place in the context of unprecedented spending cuts, an economy that’s stalling (to remain vaguely positive I’m resisting the temptation to say ‘tanking’) and an outbreak of the most frightening civil unrest the country has seen for decades.

So, if 2010 was the year of ideas and 2011 was the year of instigation, what about 2012?

I suppose the obvious answer would be to say it will be the year of delivery. When all these programmes and small (and occasionally big) pots of money will start to make things happen at a local level. If we’re lucky. After months, and occasionally years, of delay these programmes are suddenly launched with a requirement to ‘deliver yesterday’ and some of them have the most ridiculous timeframes.

The Social Action Fund, for example, closed for applications in mid-November, decisions (on what I imagine must be thousands of proposals) was completed by the end of November and projects are supposed to start delivering at the beginning of December… at scale. I’m sure that timeframe will work for some, but it strikes me as slightly unrealistic for those of us who don’t have people sitting around twiddling their thumbs and waiting for a green light to crack on with things.

But 2012 will see the focus shift from Whitehall to local areas. Not because of any huge devolution of power to localities – the jury is out on that one – but as attention moves from policymakers in Westminster to those now tasked with delivering this stuff. Will government be able to leave things alone and avoid the politicians’ curse of ‘fiddling’? We’ll see, but this government seems more inclined towards a laissez-faire approach than its predecessor.

But if there are to be opportunities that civil society can make use of, here are a few things that might help:

1. We still need to sort out the banks. We didn’t do it in 2009 and problems are repeating themselves. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, we must have a UK equivalent of the Community Reinvestment Act to create a regulatory framework that encourages banks to behave in a more socially responsible way.

2. Government needs to reconcile some of the contradictions in policy which are at odds with their localism and decentralistation agenda. The National Planning Policy Framework and the Open Public Services white paper are two examples that seem to diminish the likelihood of neighbourhood based services and plans.

3. Another contradiction that needs ironing out of government is the tendency to hide behind devolution and ‘our hands are tied’ but to quickly revert to centralised-command when it suits them. So funding for the sector is ‘a local matter’ but collecting bins can be centrally prescribed.

4. For its part, the sector needs to recognise that however hard the current challenges are (and they are incredibly tough), the future is being shaped right now and we have to ensure our voices are informing how it looks.

5. What public service reform, planning, local government and regeneration look like will be determined by the ideas and ambitions that go into the mix over the next couple of years. If we are too immersed in fighting fires, we will miss the chance to inform the future and you can bet that others, who don’t share our values and ambitions, will do so… and we won’t like the consequences.

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