The Big Society in crisis: Are the wheels coming off the PM's Big Idea?

Major report says cuts are undermining the Tories' flagship policy as the public struggles to understand what it means

Mary Dejevsky
Wednesday 23 September 2015 11:40

Britain's poorest areas will be left behind by David Cameron's Big Society, a major report will warn tomorrow, as two polls show that the public are increasingly confused by the concept.

The Prime Minister will try to revive his faltering mission to boost social action and community volunteering next week – on the eve of President Obama's visit to Britain – by highlighting success stories that illustrate his vision of a Big Society.

But a hard-hitting report into the scheme by an independent cross-party commission will say that the Government's enthusiasm for it risks being undermined by "over-rapid and poorly managed public spending cuts" to the voluntary sector, particularly in low-income areas.

And a YouGov poll carried out for the commission, chaired by the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard, found that 78 per cent of the public believe the PM and Government have failed to articulate what the term actually means.

The report says this failure to tell a "sufficiently compelling narrative" has "fuelled high levels of cynicism" about the motives behind it at a time of swingeing public spending cuts.

Because of this vagueness, the agenda risks being used by Whitehall and local authorities as a "cover for cuts", the authors argue. The commission panel includes Mr Cameron's former policy adviser turned Conservative MP, Nick Boles, as well as the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, and charity chiefs.

A separate ComRes poll for The Independent on Sunday shows that in fact fewer people understand what the term "Big Society" means now than three months ago: 40 per cent admit they could not grasp the concept, compared with 30 per cent in February.

Mr Cameron launched his vision for the Big Society, the brainchild of his strategy chief Steve Hilton, in November 2009. After becoming Prime Minister a year ago, he said his government's reform agenda would have the Big Society at its heart.

But since then, some cabinet ministers have been indifferent to the project, with the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg virtually disowning the notion altogether.

To revitalise the idea, Mr Cameron will publish the Giving White Paper, designed to boost charitable donations, at the same time as meeting social enterprise award winners, selected by the Big Society Network, at an event in Downing Street a week tomorrow. The event is being held on the eve of the US President's visit. Mr Hilton's original idea was inspired by President Obama's own community volunteer programme, and Downing Street hopes that their visitor will see echoes of his own scheme.

Critics have warned that, while the Big Society "brand" has fuelled a flurry of innovative social enterprises, it masks the closure of, and cuts to, less glamorous voluntary schemes that rely on local government grants.

The commission's report says the growth of the Big Society should not be matched by a reduction in the size of the state, or moves by the Government to "abdicate its responsibilities, particularly with regard to the most vulnerable". Voluntary sector grants from local authorities are down 56 per cent year on year in some areas, which "contravenes the objectives of the Big Society", the report warns.

It highlights the inverse relationship between volunteering rates and levels of deprivation, with graduates twice as likely to volunteer as those with no qualifications.

It warns: "Not only does community capacity to deliver the Big Society vary, the variation is likely to be exacerbated by cuts. The capacity of individuals to contribute to their communities is likely to be more dependent on the state supporting them to do so."

Steve Moore, the chief executive of the Big Society Network, defended Mr Cameron's vision. "The talent and innovations being supported by the Big Society Network suggest that the UK can both lead the world in social entrepreneurship and transform how we give our time our expertise and our money to good causes and engage democratically, with civic society and with public services," he said.

"The people we work with – social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, businesses, foundations – all see the Big Society as an act of bold political imagination. I have no doubt that they will rise to the challenge."

I the House of Lords last week, Lord Wei, the PM's Big Society adviser, warned that the whole concept risked becoming politicised, which would deter the public from putting themselves forward. "We cannot assume people will get involved just because government encourages them to do so. Indeed, there is evidence that the more politicised a topic like this becomes, the less people may want to engage with it."

Winners and losers in the volunteer lottery

On your bike

The Big Society is the brainchild of Steve Hilton, the Conservative strategy chief, and was partly inspired by Barack Obama's community volunteersprogramme. Next week David Cameron, left, unveils his Giving White Paper, part of a concerted effort to get his mission back on track

Step Forward Loser

The Bethnal Green-based charity, whose patron is Sir Ian McKellen, has provided free confidential advice and services to young people for nearly 20 years. Last year it helped more than 1,800 young people. But Jennifer Fear, its chief executive, says it faces hard times, with the end of Big Lottery funding worth £70,000 a year, Comic Relief grants, and £15,000-worth of school contracts, forcing it to cut two posts. "It is the smaller charities like ours which are facing difficulties," she says.

Givey Winner

The brainchild of David Erasmus, who will showcase his idea to David Cameron at Downing Street next week. Givey is a service which allows people to donate to charity via text message or Twitter, which Mr Erasmus says is a world first. Someone wanting to donate £5 to the British Red Cross would simply have to tweet #Givey @BritishRedCross 5. The donations are automatically gift aided – an advantage over traditional donations, he says. Around £700m a year is lost to charities through not claiming gift aid when a donation is eligible. Mr Erasmus says his scheme also allows people to track their donations through their "Givey Journey", and charities can provide direct feedback to donors about how their money is spent – something they cannot do through traditional street collections.

FoodCycle Winner

An idea of American Kelvin Cheung, left, who was inspired by the US university food recycling scheme Campus Kitchens. Founded in September 2008, it brings together surplus food, volunteers and free kitchen space to provide nutritious meals to those in need. The scheme goes beyond the traditional soup kitchen by offering food to the homeless as well as families on low incomes. Mr Cheung, one of 20 Big Society Network award-winners praised by the Prime Minister, said: "We help communities all across the UK do this in their local area. Far from being 'prescriptive', we merely give communities the tools and know-how and it is up to them to find the best way for it to function in their community. Thus, each FoodCycle hub is a vibrant reflection of the community that it is created in. The Big Society is a great idea and I believe in it, even though it has been over-shadowed by cuts."

Little Red Bus Network Loser

The service provides community transport in rural areas of North Yorkshire (Harrogate, Craven and Ryedale), providing a vital link to villagers without their own transport. The network is run by a group of bus operators, while vehicles are driven by volunteers. Passengers can book for journeys in advance, using a live database of transport links and homes, as well as use scheduled timetables. The vast majority of the network's income comes from contracts with the local authority, North Yorkshire County Council. According to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the county has indicated that it will not be renewing the contract, despite suggestions earlier in the year that £150,000 would be available to support community transport services in Harrogate district.

TimeBank Loser

The national charity, which over the past decade has matched 300,000 individual and business volunteers to suitable projects, was praised by Big Society minister Nick Hurd on Twitter last year with the words: "Happy 10th anniversary to TimeBank! Good event trying to counter cynicism on Big Society." But weeks later the charity's chief executive, Helen Walker, revealed it was facing closure after the Government cancelled its funding. Ms Walker said the loss of the £500,000 grant, a quarter of the organisation's income, would lead to cuts of 35 staff and mounted an appeal. At the time of the announcement, in March, she warned: "This decision will hugely undermine the government's vision for a Big Society. Without this vital core funding we will not be able to continue to deliver the level of service that we have based our reputation on and will have to considerably reduce our activities and staff as a result."

SportInspired Winner

Peter Thomond and Richard Raynes, who met at university through a shared passion for sport, founded SportInspired in 2007 by staging their first Community Games, bringing together children in Hackney and volunteers from schools and big business. Children compete in at least eight different sports, coached by local sport clubs interested in recruiting members. By this summer they will have held 72 competitions involving 3,500 young people. SportInspired is another Big Society Network award winner. Mr Thomond says: "The Big Society is nothing new – all it really means is bringing people together."

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