In the latest of a regular series of columns from the Poverty Alliance, Peter Kelly explores the Big Society and the early policy signals from the UK Coalition Government.
After 100 days of the Coalition Government, a clearer sense of its priorities over the next five years is starting to emerge. Without doubt, the key goal is reducing the deficit. This is no surprise – there was political unanimity prior to the elections about the need for deep public spending cuts. The only real debate was about when and how deep. However, the Coalition is now going well beyond anything discussed during the election campaign, with departments expected to reduce spending by 25-40%. That these cuts will hit those already struggling is beyond doubt (see for example, the analysis carried out by Browne and Level for the Institute of Fiscal Studies).
This is hardly a positive political agenda, so in recent weeks the Coalition has been putting more energy into displaying its ‘progressive’ credentials. From the Poverty Alliance’s perspective, it is difficult to see the progressive intent in freezing child benefit, restricting housing benefit and lowering rates of increase for benefits overall.
The Big Society
So where is the fairness in the Government’s programme? Step forward the Big Society, which the UK Government has said will put power into communities, devolve more responsibilities from central to local government and give the voluntary sector and social economy organisations the opportunity to deliver more public services.
What are we in Scotland to make of the Big Society? Some commentators have seemingly embraced the idea, welcoming the possibility of developing our own version. They are less than optimistic, however, about the ability of the main political parties in Scotland to genuinely embrace a shift in culture that would require the state, both local and national, to give up power and position. The ideas so far outlined in the Big Society are familiar: have a look at the ideas and rhetoric in the Labour Government’s ‘Communities in Control’ White Paper in 2008. Or perhaps the SNP Government’s Community Empowerment Action Plan. Rhetoric is easy; achieving genuine ‘empowerment’ is a little more challenging. Whilst many in positions of power talk about the need to devolve power to citizens, or for decisions to be made with our communities, few have taken the necessary steps to make it happen.
We do well to remember the failed efforts to devolve power to communities that have taken place over the last 13 years. Grassroots organisations that have attempted to get involved in Community Planning in Scotland need little reminding of the difficulties in devolving power to communities. The current proposals are unlikely to be successful without significant new resources to enable groups and organisations to take on a greater role.
This brings us back to the cuts. It is not so much that the Big Society is being used as a cover for the programme of cuts, but rather that the cuts programme makes the Big Society almost impossible to deliver. Community and voluntary organisations, which help sustain a vibrant civil society, are already seeing their funding melt away and cuts to the welfare system will put unbearable pressure on many organisations and individuals. It is not the ‘big state’ that threatens these groups, but cuts that many have already endured for years.
It is by campaigning against these cuts and by calling for genuinely open and accountable institutions, locally and nationally, that we will re-invigorate civil society and put real power into the hands of local communities.