Andrew Grice: Big Society might work in rural areas but it's unlikely to play on estates

Inside Westminster

Related Topics

I went into the conference about the Big Society as a sceptic about David Cameron's flagship theme.

But I listened to the speeches was gradually being won over. Then Mr Cameron went and spoiled it all by saying something stupid like: "I've seen it action in my constituency where people have got together to clear up some common land."

Aha. His remarks, at an event just before last year's election, inadvertently confirmed my worst fears. The Big Society might work very nicely in leafy Oxfordshire, but what about the most deprived parts of the country?

Yesterday Consulting Inplace warned that Mr Cameron's big idea could result in a more divided society, widening the gap between well-heeled rural areas with high levels of volunteering and deprived cities in the North and Midlands. "This could mean the most vulnerable in society benefit the least," its report said.

The Big Society bombed when Mr Cameron put it at the heart of his General Election campaign; even loyal Tory activists admitted it didn't play on the doorstep. Cameroons argued that it would be an easier concept to explain once they were in power. Now one minister admits: "It was easier to talk about in opposition as an umbrella theme. It is much harder to translate into hard policies."

Ministers tie themselves in knots as they try to explain the apparent contradiction in handing out money to voluntary groups to become less reliant on the state. Symbolically, Lord Wei, the man chosen to head Mr Cameron's pet project, has scaled back the time he commits to the unpaid job because he needs to earn some money.

More dangerously, it has become a figleaf for spending cuts. The voluntary sector is being squeezed as the big cuts imposed on local authorities trickle down. It is squealing and the Government is starting to get the blame. One Cabinet minister told me: "We have turned what should have been a positive into a negative. The Big Society is starting to damage us."

Some ministers were never really committed to it. You won't hear Nick Clegg talking about it. Some Lib Dems believe the private sector will be much better equipped to land contracts to run state-financed public services than voluntary groups, making it look like back door privatisation.

The Liberal Democrats were committed to localism long before devolving power became fashionable with all parties. Indeed, the whole thing is hardly a new idea. As church leaders tell government ministers with a smile: "We've been doing it for 2,000 years."

Part of the problem is that Mr Cameron has not defined it. Flak is now flying retrospectively at Andy Coulson, former Tory director of communications, who preferred bread-and-butter issues like law and order and was at loggerheads with Steve Hilton, the director of strategy and chief evangelist of the Big Society.

The idea has become all things to all men. At the moment it looks like the label is stuck on to every passing Government policy in the hope it will catch on. Plans to sell off England's public forests were foolishly and belatedly marketed as part of the Big Society on the grounds that charities or local groups might take over some woodlands. It gave the big idea a bad name.

Ed Miliband believes the Big Society is Labour's natural territory, but prefers to call it a Good Society in which the state and communities join forces but the state does not withdraw. He believes Mr Cameron does not understand the value of communities – and would not allow the closure of libraries, cuts in police numbers or the privatisation of forests if he did.

However, Blairites think Mr Miliband should resist the temptation to say the Big Society is all about cuts, which won't help Labour regain its economic credentials or do the party any good in 2015 if the economy is on the mend. They want Mr Miliband to outflank Mr Cameron on his home turf by saying he should go "further and faster".

Timing is all and Mr Cameron's big idea might have worked in the years of plenty when the Government could have oiled the wheels properly. It is not a good idea in an age of austerity.

But all is not yet lost, the Cameroons insist. Despite all the problems, the Prime Minister will not let his pet project die a death by a thousand spending cuts. He will come out fighting on Monday as he seeks to redefine it and there will be a flurry of Big Society initiatives next week. "He will make this work," one Cabinet ally said yesterday. "We are in choppy waters but he is the PM and the machine will have to deliver it. He is not going to drop it."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
Prime Minister David Cameron says his party must not ‘remain neutral’ in the EU membership referendum  

Greece might just have gifted David Cameron with EU referendum success

John Mullin
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most