Cameron's Big Society attacked as 'a cover for spending cuts'

David Cameron proclaimed the "Big Society" yesterday as the big idea by which people will remember his government in future decades.

The "Big Society" is a phrase he used in a lecture eight months ago, which has drawn criticism from people who think it is either meaningless, or an excuse for cutting public services. But speaking in Liverpool yesterday, the Prime Minister claimed that it was a "powerful idea" that will involve a "huge culture change", and will reinvigorate local communities by freeing them from central bureaucratic control.

He named four "vanguard communities" which are going to be the "great training grounds of this change", adding that he wants the "Big Society" to spread out from there to cover the whole country. The four areas are Eden Valley in Cumbria; Windsor and Maidenhead; Sutton; and Liverpool, which have been experimenting with different ways of involving local people in running local services.

He promised them back-up from civil servants from the Department of Communities and Local Government, and announced that there is to be a Big Society Bank set up with funds taken from dormant bank and building society accounts to fund more local initiatives which encourage people to take responsibility for running facilities such as parks, libraries, museums, post offices and even pubs, or organising street parties to foster a community spirit.

"I passionately believe what we have begun here will spread right across our country," he said. "It's my hope, and my mission, that when people look back at this five, 10-year period from 2010 they'll say, 'Britain didn't just pay down the deficit... the people in Britain worked out the answer to the big social problems'. A big part of that answer is the Big Society."

Speaking on BBC Breakfast ahead of his speech, the Prime Minister denied the Big Society concept was just a fig leaf for public service cuts. "It is not a cover for anything," he said. "I was talking about the Big Society and encouraging volunteering, encouraging social enterprises, voluntary groups to do more to make our society stronger. I was talking about that way before we had a problem with cuts and deficits and all the rest of it."

The speech received a mixed reception yesterday, with some councillors and free market think-tanks suggesting it could bring benefits when more details were known – while Labour politicians and council leaders denounced it as a cover for spending cuts.

Gary Strong, a Cumbria county councillor, told Mr Cameron that it could bring great benefit to one of the trial areas, Eden Valley. "People have said to me 'what is the Big Society all about?'" he said. If it's people taking more decisions for themselves, it's very good."

Mark Littlewood, head of the Institute of Economic Affairs said: "This Big Society initiative is full of promising rhetoric, but still seems to be based largely on bigger government, not a bigger role for individuals.

"Funding expert organisers and assigning bureaucrats to deliver a vast range of programmes is expanding the role of government, not liberating and empowering local people."

But Labour's shadow Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell dismissed the "Big Society" as "simply a brass-necked rebranding of programmes already put in place by a Labour government". She added: "Funding for a social investment bank and for community pubs was put in place in March, and residents have been involved in setting council budgets for a number of years."

Dave Prentis, head of Britain's biggest public sector union, Unison, said: "Cameron's 'Big Society' should be renamed the 'big cop out'. Make no mistake, this plan is all about saving money. And it will cost even more jobs and lead to more service cuts."

Pilot areas: How will the big society work?

*While the political fantasy of the Big Society would see local communities rise up and take control of their own destiny – the on-the-ground reality is likely to be much less dramatic.

The four pilot areas chosen – Liverpool, Eden Valley, Cumbria; Windsor and Maidenhead and the London borough of Sutton – have been selected because they can already cite examples of the type of community activism the Big Society says it is about.

In Eden Valley, one group is trying to buy the local pub, which is threatened with closure. While in Sutton, residents forced the change of the local bus and train timetables because they clashed.

But these plans are already afoot. So how will being a pilot site for the Big Society benefit these areas?

One change is that each area will be asked to nominate a community organiser, who will be trained at the expense of the Government and will be given access to specific civil servants who will help them put plans into action.

But it is the nature of the plans which no one seems to have much detail about. Sean Brennan, leader of Sutton Council, explains: "We put forward four ideas of ways we can devolve power to the local community. We do still need to put some flesh on the bones. And we are not sure exactly what resources we will need. But we do know that we will get extra support and resources from the Government, which is keen to engage and get rid of bureaucracy."

And what if people simply don't want to get involved in the Big Society? It has been criticised for perhaps assuming people are interested in what could be considered trivial matters about their community.

Mr Brennan added: "I can't speak for the rest of the country, but I can assure you the people of Sutton are anxious to get involved."

Pilot areas: How will the big society work?

*While the political fantasy of the Big Society would see local communities rise up and take control of their own destiny – the on-the-ground reality is likely to be much less dramatic.

The four pilot areas chosen – Liverpool, Eden Valley, Cumbria; Windsor and Maidenhead and the London borough of Sutton – have been selected because they can already cite examples of the type of community activism the Big Society says it is about.

In Eden Valley, one group is trying to buy the local pub, which is threatened with closure. While in Sutton, residents forced the change of the local bus and train timetables because they clashed.

But these plans are already afoot. So how will being a pilot site for the Big Society benefit these areas?

One change is that each area will be asked to nominate a community organiser, who will be trained at the expense of the Government and will be given access to specific civil servants who will help them put plans into action.

But it is the nature of the plans which no one seems to have much detail about. Sean Brennan, leader of Sutton Council, explains: "We put forward four ideas of ways we can devolve power to the local community. We do still need to put some flesh on the bones. And we are not sure exactly what resources we will need. But we do know that we will get extra support and resources from the Government, which is keen to engage and get rid of bureaucracy."

And what if people simply don't want to get involved in the Big Society? It has been criticised for perhaps assuming people are interested in what could be considered trivial matters about their community.

Mr Brennan added: "I can't speak for the rest of the country, but I can assure you the people of Sutton are anxious to get involved."

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