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Why did the Big Society fail?

February 2017

By Matt Leach, chief executive, Local Trust

As our Empowered Communities project prepares to look at the future of support to communities, Matt Leach reflects on what we can learn by looking at the past.

If building strong, sustainable communities was easy, history would be rather less littered with the incredible range of area, neighbourhood and community-focused regeneration, cohesion and renewal programmes seen since the mid-1980s. The truth is that doing ‘the community thing’ is difficult, and is as likely to result in disappointing failure as spectacular success (although it’s fair to say most probably fall somewhere in between).

It’s vitally important to learn from failure.  Not least because there’s a huge amount of it around at the moment.  Brexit is shaping our national future, and it’s partly come about because the former political establishment failed to carry the country in their way of thinking.  The referendum result was also driven in part by the failure of our current economic settlement, which doesn’t deliver shared prosperity to communities that feel marginalised and left behind.  And even in areas perceived as benefiting from prosperity, we see the life chances of a generation affected by decades of failure to address a dysfunctional housing market. 

If we’re going to learn the lessons of failure, the best place to start might be somewhere near the epicentre of one of the most spectacularly failed community-focused policy initiatives of recent times.  And, back in 2010, I had that privilege (if that is the word), when I spent a short time at ResPublica, a think tank that was involved in the invention of what became known as Big Society. 

Big Society was interesting.  On the face of it, the initiative suffered from an incredible bland vacuity that undermined it to the point at which the concept collapsed from a complete lack of substance.

‘Charities are great; volunteering is the future; transfer assets to communities; social investment is rather whizzy’ doesn’t, on reflection, amount to any sort of credible policy platform.

'Big Society not Big Government' slogan

But underpinning it were some much more interesting challenges and tensions that continue to have relevance to current thinking around the relationship between people, place, community and state. Part of the collapse of Big Society can be put down to a failure to more openly acknowledge the extent of these tensions, and a failure to resolve them with a shared narrative.

To (slightly) simplify what seemed to be going on at the time, there were three particular drivers of the Big Society ideal. The first two were idealistic and the third was pragmatic.

  • First, there was the view that we needed to radically reshape the economy, both by more effectively distributing wealth and assets, and by embracing new forms of business structure (such as mutuals and social enterprises) that would create value in new and pro-social ways.  Behind this was a desire to ensure that more people saw the benefits of economic growth.
  • A second driver was the move to radically devolve power to local authorities and below them to communities, turning our back on years of increasing centralisation of power in the UK. The thinking behind this was that individuals and communities are best able to understand their own needs and shape the solutions they need.
  • Third, it was felt that shifting demographics would lead to a declining working population, which soon wouldn’t provide the tax income required for delivering health and social care to a rapidly ageing population. So a conversation was needed about how society would cope with and adapt to a decline in the national and local state’s ability to provide public services at the existing level.

Looking back, it is a shame that a set of profoundly interesting and important ideas disintegrated in the face of poor communication, institutional inertia, a political and media cycle focused on quick fixes and easy answers, and a lot of understandable upset about the savage cuts many local charities were facing as a result of local authority cutbacks. It is arguable that the sustainability of the already-pressurised charity infrastructure that existed at the time was never intended to be at the heart of the Big Society project. Yet somehow, for many, the strength of this infrastructure became a generally accepted test of the Big Society’s credibility.

An alternative reading of Big Society’s failure might focus on something different. The ideologically-driven strands of Big Society were in retrospect genuinely radical. They merited more than a magazine article, a moderately incoherent paperback and an over-designed manifesto to explore and develop them. Within months of the election Big Society had become simply a list of things government was doing at a time when the public (and indeed most of the governing coalition’s MPs) had had no opportunity to understand, question, challenge or absorb any of the pretty revolutionary political aspirations that had driven them. 

Genuinely radical ideas need space to be debated, shared and developed – something that just wasn’t possible in the frantic window between pre-election manifesto drafting and post-election coalition management.

The more pragmatic driver of the Big Society also suffered from a lack of honest public debate. Seven years into what seems for much of the economy like an endless programme of austerity, conversations about how to cope with the withdrawal of the state from previously accepted areas of activity have become commonplace, particularly at a local level. But at the start of the decade, there was little or no political willingness to move from abstract arguments for and against austerity and/or campaigns to preserve specific services, towards much more important conversations about how we - individually and as communities - adapt to a very changed notion of what the state is capable of providing. 

The following table from the always excellent Resolution Foundation shows just how much of a shift of focus we have seen and will see in public spending over the current decade, almost irrespective of the overall envelope set by any particular set of Treasury ministers. The fact that we are currently in a health funding crisis despite its share of public spending increasing by almost 50% over the last decade emphasises the challenge we collectively face.

 

Resolution Foundation table

So where do we go from here? Tomorrow I’ll be blogging about what Local Trust is doing to learn from this history and meet today’s challenges – not least that of providing a genuine space for collective debate about the future of community, empowerment and place.


Want the next installment? To get an email with a link to Matt’s next blog when it is published tomorrow, sign up to the Empowered Communities mailing list. Find out more about our Empowered Communities project here.

Got comments? Join the debate on Twitter @matt_leach #Empowered2020s

 

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