The cuts threaten the “Big Society”
One of the strongest supporters of the Big Society has warned David Cameron that “expenditure cuts are a double whammy in communities like ours, increasing unemployment (the public sector is the biggest local employer) and closing services at the same time.”
The warning comes in an open letter to the Prime Minister from David Robinson, co-founder of Community Links. As Patrick Butler put it in the Guardian, Community Links “has helped write the book on how to deliver successful grassroots social regeneration in some of the UK’s most deprived and unpromising neighbourhoods.” They also have a reputation among voluntary organisations for having been very successful at getting close to the new government. TUC and Community Links people have written a few guest postings for each other’s blogs, and they’re an organisation we admire.
In the past, Mr Cameron has praised Community Links as “one of Britain’s most inspiring community organisations”, and David Robinson writes as an admirer of the Big Society project:
The idea that we should all have the opportunity and the encouragement to play a part in the communities we share is not a new one but it is a good one. I admire your big hearted vision and I respect your clear sighted perseverance in pursuing it, but I am worried.
All of this makes Mr Robinson’s worries the more difficult to brush off. He says, quite reasonably, that organisations like his are the “bedrock” of the Big Society but they are “wobbling”:
Without buildings, leadership, training, and support we can’t grow our “little platoons” quickly enough to fill the gaps. Indeed we won’t even be able to sustain them at their current level. Cuts in public expenditure in many areas of our work, coupled with major changes in Legal Aid and New Deal mean most of our budget for 2011/2012 is at risk. Ultimately this will diminish our community not make it stronger.
Mr Robinson focuses on the speed of the changes and the fact that they are not co-ordinated and steers clear of expressing a view on whether cuts are needed, but his criticisms have hit home all the harder for that. The reference to the need for “buildings, leadership, training, and support ” is a point that government supporters sometimes try to skate over: community initiatives (and especially initiatives by deprived communities) depend on state resources.
In the struggle against poverty, inequality and deprivation the third sector can supply independent advocacy, innovate new ways of dealing with problems and is sometimes the best channel for delivering state services. But when state services are being cut so drastically, it is simply unfair to volunteers to expect them to fill all the gaps. The more the government cuts public services the more the rest of us will infer that the Big Society is no more than cynical camouflage.