Big society: tiny content

I was at a conference this week, in which John Humphrys of Radio 4’s Today programme and Mastermind fame chaired a Question Time style discussion on, inter alia, the state of public expenditure and the Big Society, that much-vaunted vanity-project of the Prime Minister’s. The panel was distinguished: Michael Portillo, Lord Ashdown, along with economists Frances Cairncross and Dennis Turner.

At one point in the discussion, John Humphrys asked the assembled 600 delegates from local authorities up and down the country to put up their hands if they had the faintest idea what Big Society meant. No-one did. Actually, I should have put up my hand, and had I not been suffering from stage-fright I probably would have done. Because I know exactly what the Big Society idea means. It’s a romantic, wistful nostalgia for a golden age that probably never existed at all, a time when working-class people could leave their front doors unlocked in the secure knowledge that their property would be safe. It was also a time when working class people probably had nothing worth nicking, but let that pass. If one wanted to uncover the epistemology of the Big Society, one would I suspect need to study all the scripts of Dads’ Army, deconstruct the Hovis adverts, and listen to Vera Lynn’s sentimental evocation of the bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover. Michael Portillo got closest to enunciating just this perspective during the Question Time discussion. He bemoaned the break down in a sense of community; he talked with a mixture of sentiment and irritation about the way in which modern society looks to the state to answer every social difficulty, and contrasted this with the self-reliance that he believed was necessary to social cohesion, and which had been lost via the ministrations of an over-bearing and patronising public sector. The familiar equation of Big Society and small state.

By now, I’d overcome my stage fright, helped in no small part by a mounting frustration with this kind of vacuous talk. So in my question to the panel, I contrasted the easy talk at a vague philosophical level about small states, and the macro-economics of deficits and growth, with the real-scale dilemmas facing those of us in the public sector now being asked to implement the outcomes of such big ideas in small communities. I work for a housing provider. We have a proud record of dealing with anti-social behaviour, whether expressed in neighbour nuisance or in domestic violence. That record has been achieved because we’ve thrown a great deal of money at the problem. We have uniformed wardens patrolling our estates, we have staff dedicated to building up community through involving residents, especially young ones, in things more creative than smashing windows or daubing graffiti. We have used the Future Jobs Fund to try and help some of our many unemployed residents back into work, or more often, into work for the first time. But none of this is the core business of a housing provider. Our core business is collecting rents, dealing with arrears, repairing properties, investing in new ones and the improvement of old ones. Now that we are faced with making enormous cuts it will be all the added extras – those wardens, those youth employment programmes, those arbitration sessions between warring residents – that will go. We cannot stop collecting rent. We cannot stop dealing with repairs.

So how, Mr Portillo, and the other distinguished panellists, will the Big Society step in and pick up what our small state no longer thinks is necessary? How will volunteers, the charitable sector, squeezed as it is by cuts in grant funding, ride like the cavalry to the rescue? You may be surprised to learn that no answers were forthcoming. Well, not quite no answers. Frances Cairncross suggested that perhaps, instead of trying to debate with a tenant who had, for example, terrorised their neighbours with an out-of-control dog, it would be simpler and cheaper just to go out with a shotgun and shoot the offending animal, no questions asked. I suspect that Ms Cairncross was not being entirely serious. But she also produced the only practical example I’ve ever heard of how the Big Society might operate on a large, northern council estate. The other panellists had only platitudes to offer. So there you have it. The Big Society means shooting dogs, or waffling on about how the state has stifled self-reliance. Neither seems entirely helpful.

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