The Big Society: the Big Divide? is a new book from JUST West Yorkshire. Financially supported by OXFAM GB it aims to ‘challenge the changes that are being made to Britain’s social landscape by the Coalition Government under the rubric of the Big Society.’
The publication comes a year after a poll in The Sun newspaper revealed that 63% of people didn’t know what the Government’s flagship policy meant. That wasn’t too surprising as even the man who helped develop the idea, Phillip Blond, admitted then “the agenda is still not widely grasped or shared across all government departments.”
Following which there have been some significant developments. Including the first appointments of an expected 500 senior Big Society community organisers, who are set in the next few years to be supported by 4500 part-time workers and an unspecified number of recruited volunteers.
There’s the Big Society Capital, consisting of an initial £200 million allocated to it by Britain’s biggest banks from accounts that have laid dormant for a minimum of fifteen years. Operating independently of government it will not make grants and will be expected to make a sufficient return on its investment to cover its operating costs.
The National Citizens Service Volunteering scheme last year saw 8,000 volunteers participate in six-weeks of initiatives and the government is committed to providing volunteering opportunities for 90,000 16-year-olds by 2014. Some of who will be expected to pay towards the training providers costs either through fees, returnable deposits or fund-raising initiatives.
The Localism Act of 2011 has also changed the powers of Local Government such that local authorities are required to consider requests by voluntary groups, social enterprises and parish councils to take over council-run services.
When he became Prime Minister, David Cameron said the aim of the changes that have followed was “to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will 'take power away from politicians and give it to people'. “
Although there is no such thing as a Big Society Tsar or cabinet representative there is a Big Society Network, which says ‘that by working with business, philanthropists, charities and social ventures we believe we can unleash the social energy that exists in the UK to help build a better, healthier society.’
None of which has impressed the opposition Labour leader, Ed Miliband, who has said that the “Big Society' is a smokescreen for public services cuts, involving nothing more than dressing up the withdrawal of support with the language of reinvigorating civic society’.
The cuts will impact heavily on voluntary and community groups, with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations estimating the sector will lose £2.8 billion in funding over the lifetime of the current government.
Just West Yorkshire is a charity promoting racial justice, civil liberties and human rights. The book was launched at a Conference – The Good, the Bad and the Unequal? - in Bradford last month. 200 delegates attended this from voluntary and charitable organisations. Supported by the Runnymede Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust a request to the government to provide a speaker were declined.
With the voluntary sector in northern England obtaining 42% of its funds from the public sector - 10% higher than in London and the south east – there were fears that many small community organisations would not survive, making it increasingly difficult to help the poorest in society.
Delegates from community groups in Bradford reported how they were attempting to monitor the impact of all the cuts on their local communities and use the local media to embarrass politicians carrying them out. Where cuts are proposed without an assessment of their impact on equality it was agreed to seek a judicial review in the courts.
Meanwhile, many small groups reported being overlooked, in favour of larger national charities, when Local authorities commission services previously undertaken in-house.
It was agreed to use the contents of the new book to maintain opposition to the Big Society, including refusing to be used to undermine the public sector and those working in it.