'The town seems affluent, but look at the evidence of people who need our help'

From the leafy serenity of Witney Green, with one of the Oxfordshire town's picturesque church spires and local pubs in the middle distance, it is not hard to see why David Cameron, the local member of Parliament, imagined a return to an old-fashioned community spirit could help solve many of Britain's social ills.

He entered Downing Street promising to build a "Big Society", which would step into the breach left by the biggest cuts to the size of the state in generations. Six months later, public spending has been slashed by £81bn.

But even in his own idyllic back yard, acute tensions are already appearing in his attempt to hand power back to the people at the same time as cutting state services. Visiting Mr Cameron's west Oxfordshire constituency may feel like a foray into a rural past, but the area has not escaped the economic collapse unscathed. Witney town centre has the odd boarded-up store front and has several small council housing estates dotted around its perimeter.

Just down the road from the antique stores along the town's main thoroughfare – housed in an inconspicuous, stone-clad property – the local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) is busier than ever. Most mornings, its waiting room is full of 10 or so locals seeking help. Staffed by 100 volunteers, who all give up a day a week to work there, it represents the beating heart of the "Big Society" here. Its workload increased by almost a third last year, with more than 18,800 inquiries from residents. "On the surface [Witney] does look affluent, but there are hidden pockets of deprivation," said Barbara Shaw, its chief executive. "All we can do is look at the evidence of people who come through the door."

Two years ago, the CAB's staff saw a spike in inquiries about job losses. In 2009, those with debt problems increased by 48 per cent, well above the national average of 23 per cent.

There was also a 47 per cent rise in the number of families at risk of losing their homes. The CAB's emergency repossession advice service at the local court has also seen a surge of demand. Despite the huge clamour for its services, funding has been flat for two years and cuts are on the way.

"Following the spending review, every CAB is expecting to have some funding cuts," Ms Shaw said. "We have no idea what it is going to be."

In all likelihood, paid staff positions will have to be sacrificed.

The bureau is already making changes. It has introduced a new "gateway" system, with many inquiries immediately passed on to the local council or a solicitor.

But with huge council spending cuts on the way, the local authority's ability to act on tip offs will also be curtailed. It highlights the tensions of expecting a sense of community spirit to take off at a time when spending of all kinds is slumping. It also backs up the claim of Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who argued that the "Big Society" would put rural communities in danger, as church and voluntary groups in the areas are already at full stretch.

Donna Spain has found herself having to do more just to stand still. "The only thing I would criticise the Government for is the changes to child benefits and tax credits that my family relied on," said the 22-year-old, her two young children in tow. "Both my husband and I go out to work and yet we are losing benefits. It doesn't seem fair. We relied on them to make ends meet each month."

To compensate, she has just taken a second job as a cleaner at a local supermarket, where she was already working behind the till.

Her sister, Sally-Anne Jones, is also frustrated.

"Rather than helping out those who are trying to better themselves to the benefit of them and their families, they are penalising them," said the 26-year-old, who works to fund a university course. In the nearby town of Carterton, however, signs of the "Big Society" are more promising. The Prime Minister must have rejoiced when he met its deputy mayor, Adrian Coomber, a few weeks ago.

Not only does he head a Neighbourhood Action Group, working with police and the council to improve the local community, he also organises litter pick-ups and anti-graffiti campaigns. But while he and others have been willing to step in to locate fly-tipping hotspots and figure out the crime priorities for local people, the question of who ultimately foots the bill remains.

"It's easy to identify the problems. It's not always easy to identify the best method of delivering a solution," Mr Coomber said. He explained that while his group identified anti-social behaviour and the lack of youth facilities as the number one issue for residents, the town's only youth centre was under threat of closure because of the spending squeeze.

Thames Valley Police has also warned that cuts may lead to "noticeable reductions in services". And even in middle-class Carterton, the "Big Society" can be thinly peopled.

"We're always in need of volunteers – I find myself saying that all the time," Mr Coomber said. "People have got lots of things to say about how terrible society is sometimes, but when it comes to asking people to roll up their sleeves and do something about it, that's the difficult bit."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech

Company reveals $542m investment in start-up building 'a rocket ship for the mind"

News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
football

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album