The Big Society: a genuine vision for Britain's future – or just empty rhetoric?

Yesterday David Cameron laid out his flagship policy. Andy McSmith reads between the lines

Saturday 22 October 2011 21:14

This is an edited extract from a speech given by the Prime Minister yesterday: I've been in Downing Street for a couple of months now and it seems to me that the business of government falls into two categories. There are the things you do because it's your duty. Sometimes unpopular – but you do them because it is in the national interest.

But there are the things you do because it's your passion. (Andy McSmith writes: Almost all the economic news we have heard since the coalition came to power has been bad news about cutting public services to pay off a deficit. David Cameron's Big Society speech yesterday was his attempt to convince us that there is a positive case for cutting government down to size.) The things that fire you up in the morning, that drive you, that you truly believe will make a real difference. And my great passion is building the Big Society.

It's an idea I spoke about when I ran for the leadership of the Conservative Party, during the years in opposition, during the election campaign and when I stood on the steps of Downing Street. (The first reported occasion when Mr Cameron used the phrase 'Big Society' was in a lecture he delivered in November 2009, but he is right that it has been his consistent theme. He complained about 'big government' and talked of involving voluntary organisations in the speech which won him the Tory leadership election in November 2005.) Today, I want to take this opportunity to explain some of the real, practical steps that we are taking to make the Big Society a reality.

Let me briefly explain what the Big Society is and why it is such a powerful idea. You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society.

The Big Society is about a huge culture change – where people, in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their workplace – don't always turn to officials ( There could be two reasons why you might not turn to officials for help in David Cameron's Britain. Either you have taken his exhortations to heart and become self-sufficient – or you cannot find the official you need, because so many of them have been sacked.), local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities. (This is a theme that Margaret Thatcher used to expound. She called it 'Victorian values'. Mr Cameron is not going to use that expression, but some of the ideas he has about mutual help would not have sounded strange to Victorian ears.) It's about people setting up great new schools. Businesses helping people getting trained for work. Charities working to rehabilitate offenders. It's about liberation – the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power to the man and woman on the street.

And this is such a powerful idea for blindingly obvious reasons.

For years, there was the basic assumption at the heart of government that the way to improve things in society was to micromanage from the centre.

But this just doesn't work. Over the past decade, many of our most pressing social problems got worse, not better. It's time for something different, something bold – something that doesn't just pour money down the throat of wasteful, top-down government schemes.

The Big Society is that. It's about saying if we want real change for the long term, we need people to come together and work together – because we're all in this together. (So even when we have brought the deficit down, we are not going back to big government)

Of course, there is no one lever we can pull to create the Big Society in our country. (When Mrs Thatcher talked of 'rolling back the frontiers of the state', she had one big idea – privatisation. David Cameron cannot match that. The Big Society is more a collection of small ideas with a common theme.) And we shouldn't be naïve enough to think that if the government rolls back and does less, then miraculously society will spring up and do more. The truth is that we need a government that actually helps to build up the Big Society. (And it's going to be directed from the centre, for all the scorn Mr Cameron has poured on 'top- down' government.)

For a long time the way government has worked – top-down, top-heavy, controlling – has frequently had the effect of sapping responsibility, local innovation and civic action. It has turned many motivated public sector workers into disillusioned, weary puppets of government targets. It has turned able, capable individuals into passive recipients of state help.

The rule of this government should be this: if it unleashes community engagement – we should do it. If it crushes it – we shouldn't. And these are the three big strands of the Big Society.

First, social action. The success of the Big Society will depend on the daily decisions of millions of people – on them giving their time, effort, even money, to causes around them. (Huge numbers of people already do voluntary work – some of those are getting quite irritated that David Cameron seems not to have noticed.) So government cannot remain neutral on that – it must foster and support a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social action.

Second, public service reform. We've got to get rid of the centralised bureaucracy that wastes money and undermines morale. And in its place we've got give professionals much more freedom, and open up public services to new providers like charities, social enterprises and private companies so we get more innovation, diversity and responsiveness.

And third, community empowerment. We need to create communities with oomph – neighbourhoods who are in charge of their own destiny, who feel if they club together and get involved they can shape the world around them.

If these are the three strands of the Big Society agenda, there are also three techniques we must use to galvanise them. First, decentralisation. We must push power away from central government to local government. We should drive it down even further to what Phil Redmond has called the "nano" level – to communities, to neighbourhoods and individuals. (The power that central and local government has derives from their right to raise taxes. Mr Cameron is not going to give 'communities, neighbourhoods and individuals' tax raising powers, so any new 'power' they will have will be limited.)

Second, if we want people to play a bigger part in our society, we need to give them the information. So, for example, by releasing the data about precisely when and where crimes have taken place on the streets we can give people the power not just to hold the police to account but to go even further, and take action themselves (When the size of the police force has been cut, crime prevention will become the work of volunteers) – for instance, starting a new neighbourhood watch scheme, youth club or an after-school club if they realise that's when most of the trouble begins.

Third, providing finance. We believe in paying public service providers by results. ('Paying by results' is not to be confused with 'setting targets', which is the Labour way of trying to get value for money.) It encourages value for money and innovation at the same time. But the potential problem is that you can lock smaller organisations out, because they don't have access to start-up capital. So government has a crucial role to play in bridging the gap – and indeed, more widely, in connecting private capital to investment in social projects.

We have already said we will create a Big Society Bank to help finance social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups through intermediaries. And I can announce today that it will be established using every penny of dormant account money allocated to England. (When Gordon Brown was considering raiding these dormant accounts, four years ago, the Tories said they should be used to solve the pension crisis, and the Lib Dems suggested they go to overseas aid. The idea of using them for 'Big Society' community projects is new.)

But today, I want to focus on the first of these techniques – the decentralisation.

When I go up and down the country and speak to council leaders, social entrepreneurs and local activists it's clear to me that there is a real hunger out there to do more – to take on more responsibility and have more control. So I ask them: "What powers do you want? What more do you want to be able to do?" It's by asking those questions that you arrive at so many of this coalition's most transformative ideas. New powers for local communities to take over the running of parks, libraries and post offices. (These are much valued local facilities that are very vulnerable to spending cuts. David Cameron is saying that if you want to keep them, you raise the money to maintain them.)

More powers to plan the look, size, shape and feel of housing developments. Powers to generate their own energy and have beat meetings to hold police to account. These ideas signal the most radical shift in power from central government to neighbourhoods.

Not long ago, four parts of our country – Eden Valley in Cumbria, Windsor and Maidenhead, Sutton and here in Liverpool – came to us and said: "We want more power and control. So that's what we're going to do." (Eden Valley Council has moved a community centre to a site chosen locally, and helped local people to buy out a pub. Windsor and Maidenhead Borough Council has been leading the way in delegating decisions down to parish and street level. Sutton Council has pioneered 'big lunches' – street parties to generate a community spirit - and consulted on local transport. Liverpool has recruited volunteers to help run museums and media projects.)

These four vanguard communities will be the great training grounds of this change – and the Big Society is built. They are all from very different places. Rural, suburban, urban. They're led by different sorts of people. And they've got different ideas. From devolving budgets to street-level, to developing local transport services, taking over local assets such as a pub, piloting open-source planning, delivering broadband to local communities, to building a volunteer program so they can keep local museums open for longer.

To help them, we will make available officials from the Department of Communities and Local Government. If there's a problem or obstacle or bureaucratic log-jam, they will be there, on hand, to help break them down and get things moving. And we'll also work with communities to help identify and fund a community organiser for each area.

These will be trained people who know how to stimulate and organise local support for – and involvement in – community action. As these four areas move ahead with their plans, yes, there will be problems – financial problems, legal problems, bureaucratic problems.

Yes, there will be objections. But you know what? We're happy about that. (What would make Mr Cameron unhappy is if people treated his big idea as meaningless, or a joke. If they object, at least he can claim it is being taken seriously.)This process is all about learning. It's about holding our hands up saying we haven't got all the answers.

This is a big advance for people power. The people power I have spoken about for years. And the big change this coalition government wants to bring.

But this is just the beginning. I want other forward-thinking, community-minded people to come forward and ask for the same freedoms. If you've got an idea to make life better – tell us what you want to do and we will try and give you the tools to make this happen. (Appeals like this from politicians frequently open the floodgate to frivolous, silly or slightly deranged ideas, but let us hope this is an exception.)

I think we are on to a really big idea, a really exciting future for our country and today, I hope, is one more big step towards that.

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