The Big Society in Action – notes from another session at the Conservative Party Conference

Rory Stewart MP, Professor David Eastwood, Ben Lucas and Professor Helen Sullivan
Rory Stewart MP, Professor David Eastwood, Ben Lucas and Professor Helen Sullivan

I’ve just come away from a very thought provoking Big Society discussion hosted by the University of Birmingham and Demos at the Conservative Party Fringe.   I think Rory Stewart MP gave one of the most lucid explanations I’ve yet come across.  Here are my notes

Rory Stewart is the new MP for Penrith and the Borders in Cumbria. His constituency has been one of the pilot areas for “Big Society” – he writes about that here:

Big Society isn’t a Sphinx without a riddle or an excuse for no funding or a mystical construct.

It is clearly not about the government per se, the individual or business, probably not primarily about the voluntary sector. It is about community, particularly about local democracy.  To use a Bhuddist analogy the noble truths might be….

  • We have a World dominated by government that is to rigid
  • Solution to this is de-centralisation
  • The path is through something called the big society

Big Society is not an object so much as an activity, not a funding stream or a pot of money.

Concrete example in Cumbria re rural broadband… attempting to install super fast broadband faster and cheaper than government would do it.  14 to 15 billion would be the government cost. In Cumbria we are breaking into the fibre that runs into schools, creating cabinets and encouraging communities to tap into thoise  Farmers can dig their own trenches bringing prices down to 15% and get it done in 2 years instead of much longer.  Here government provides soft loans – access to infrastructure. The government was never going to be able to do this – communities organised through parishes to give them democratic legitimacy can do this.

Ben Lucas of the 2020 Public Services Trust

My concern is that it could undermine the value of the Big Society idea in it by trying to be two things at one time

  • A rhetorical distanceing from the idea that there is no thing as society.
  • Also a way of emphasising relative importance of civic society against the role of the state.

Very strongly support much of what lies behind it.  Some people have interpreted it as just about volunteering – it clearly isn’t.   It is partly about re-thinking the role of the state. Social value lies in the quality of the interaction between the state and the citizen, for example if citizens don’t play their part in improving their health it doesn’t matter how good the local hospital is, public services are essentially co-produced.

One of the area of interest for him is how do you link effective social institutions with effective social networks.  Jospeh Rowntree did a piece of work on communities in recession with high levels of unemployment.  The ones that are more resilient are the ones with more community ownership in the neighbourhood.  Questions…

  1. How do you finance up front social investment in a recession?
  2. Quality of the public realm – how can local authorities not do the obvious things, cutting their non core services – which might
  3. What is the role for the voluntary sector – the real future is the creation of new institutions, local mutual, citizen run.

We need to keep a layer of govt that can coordinate at a city region level.  It’s about a balance between localism and the wider neighbourhoods.

Professor Helen Sullivan, Professor of Government and Society at University of Birmingham going to run

a independant Commission by the University of Birmingham in partnership with Demos.  The Commission will draw together the University’s expertise in local government reform and Demos’ work on capabilities and citizenship in order to contribute to the development of a policy agenda that might effectively and fairly empower non-state actors in society.

There’s no doubt the state has become unfashionable again.  Now regarded as at best outmoded and at worst a block to citizen action and enterprise.  Big Society underplays the vital contribution a well resourced state makes to inequality and key issues, such as climate change.

Fails to acknowledge the inter connection between state and civil society.  Investment has become largely from the state, not private philanthropy.  If the state withdraws then the voluntary sector will not automatically fill the gap.

Re thinking the role of the state

1 Working out more precisely what is meant by the big society, a conversation to be had with the public.  What are reasonable expectations citizens have of the state. People have different motivations for engaging in civil action, often citizens are resisting the state, not doing its will.

2 Taking a localist approach –  this is about the quality of democratic politics.  There’s an assumption that consensus is the norm, but politics and conflict are always present. Local government will need to navigate the tension between communities. How will these relationships need re designing, what does it mean for future raining of government officers. Needs a review of local govt finance

3 Role of the central state.  There is a still a case to say we need national mechanism to address inequalities from local conditions.  For example inequalities over age locally.


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