Prime Minister launched the “Big Society”

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

The British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday, July 19, 2010, gave more detail on his vision for the Coalition Government’s Big Society agenda by outlining plans for a new Big Society Bank, and announcing the country’s first big society communities in Sutton, Windsor and Maidenhead, Eden Valley in Cumbria and Liverpool.

The Big Society Bank will ensure that all the money from dormant bank accounts made available to England is put to good use for the benefit of society. By expanding the social investment market place and helping to attract extra private sector investment it is expected that over time the Bank will generate hundreds of millions of pounds for charities, social enterprises and voluntary groups to fund social projects across the country, creating opportunities for social action and community involvement. As a wholesale organization, the Bank will invest in financial intermediaries in the social investment market, who in turn will increase access to finance for front-line, social organisations.

The question that I would like to ask though is how the monies will be allocated and who controls those. I just hope it will not be the local councils that will have the control of allocation and distribution.

The Prime Minister made the announcement to an audience of volunteers and social enterprise champions in Liverpool at the first in a series of planned Big Society events, alongside the Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and Decentralisation Minister Greg Clark.

He also announced the country’s first big society communities in the London Borough of Sutton, Windsor and Maidenhead, Eden Valley in Cumbria and Liverpool itself.

These four areas will now receive targeted and tailored help from the Government to ensure they can overcome bureaucratic barriers and take greater responsibility for the decisions that affect the local area and local people.

But, the way it would appear, this is yet again something that the government “imposes” from above by targeting certain areas to start with and, as it would appear, via the local authorities.

Community does not equal local authority, does not equal local council. Community is something apart from that. Still, despite all the talk even the new coalition government does not get it.

Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude said that the launch event shows just how much of a difference a stronger society, where people do more for each other, can make.

And he continued: “The funds from the dormant bank accounts will enable us to start stimulating activity where there is none and also help existing charities, social enterprises and community organisations to make changes in their local areas.

“This is about a real cultural shift – we know that the era of big government, just tweaking things at the centre of power, didn’t work. We want to build a Big Society where local people feel empowered to bring about the changes they know their communities need and they come together to change the things they care about.”

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said: "We are turning Government upside down. Instead of imposing top-down diktats from Whitehall, we are asking people to tell us what they want to do to improve their lives. We will give communities the same support that we Ministers have - people in Government Departments to sort out the bureaucracy that stands in their way.

"No-one knows what's needed in Liverpool, Sutton, Eden Valley and Windsor and Maidenhead better than the people who live there. That is the essence of the Big Society - trusting people to know what needs doing, with Government enabling them instead of getting in their way."

So, instead of imposing top-down diktat from Whitehall it will be controlled by town hall, rather; or so it seems to me. That still is not giving power to the people. Local councils need reforming in a serious manner too so that – finally – the chief executive and directors become accountable to the people. They themselves, and not just councillors, must be made to stand for elections in a way that it is done in some other countries, including areas in the United States.

The four big society communities have already expressed interest in areas including:

  • Making budget decisions at street-level

  • Taking over local assets such as a community pub

  • Delivering broadband to local communities

  • Piloting the Government’s open-source planning reforms

  • Taking responsibility for generating energy locally

  • Deciding licensing rules locally

  • Building a volunteer programme so they can keep local museums open for longer.

The Government is committed to give these communities all the support they need and is pledging the following measures:

  • A firm commitment to respond constructively to every request made by the big society communities for new rights and powers to take control of their cities, towns, villages and neighbourhoods.

  • Dedicated support from officials from the Department of Communities and Local Government to help the big society communities overcome and break down any barriers they encounter as they seek to take power and responsibility.

  • A community organiser to help each community coordinate local support for, and involvement in, its plans.

The Government will continue to give new powers to neighbourhoods, including greater control over their finances and new rights to take over state-run services, and wants to hear from community groups and individuals who feel they are facing unreasonable barriers to making changes for the benefit of the local community.

Notes to Editors

1. The Big Society Bank will be an independent wholesale organisation that will work and invest its funds through existing financial intermediaries like social investors and community lenders, who in turn will increase access to finance for frontline, social organisations.

2. As well as private sector investment, it will be funded by dormant bank accounts as enabled by the Dormant Bank Accounts Act. These are deposits of money in bank and building society accounts that people have lost track of or forgotten about over a period of time. The Big Society Bank will ensure that all the money from dormant bank accounts made available to England is put to good use for the benefit of society.

3. The amount of funds available for distribution will be determined by the number of banks and building societies participating in the scheme, the success of the ongoing campaign to reunite individuals with their assets, and the sums held back for customer reclaim.

4. Our target is to establish the Bank by April 2011. A key milestone will be the creation of a Reclaim Fund to protect the interests of deposit holders, as required by the Dormant Bank Accounts Act. Co-operative Financial Services are currently in the process of submitting an application to the FSA to perform this role.

5. The four big society communities will be taking forward a range of ideas, which all come directly from proposals made by the people in those areas. They include

1. moving a community centre to a site chosen by the community; building a renewable energy generation project; a community buy out of a local pub; providing community broadband access (Cumbria/Eden Valley)

2. transparency of local spending decisions; participatory budgeting for parks budget; delegating budgets to streets; devolving further powers to parishes (Windsor & Maidenhead)

3. boosting volunteering at a number of key museums; creating a social enterprise to produce films and content for digital platforms; developing neighbourhood media and cultural activities in poorer areas (Liverpool).

4. establishing greater freedom to implement sustainable transport schemes and influence the provision of local public transport; identifying ‘place shaping’ champions who can build good practice in greener living; supporting the creation of a project involving young people that invests in the local community (Sutton).

The problem is that government still is not getting it. It is not local authorities that make a community, but diverse people do. It seems to make no difference as to whether it is a Labour government or a Tory one or a coalition one of Tories and Whigs.

You cannot “create” communities in the way as the PM has announced that government is creating those new Big Society communities and then basing them in local council areas. My G-d! When will the governments of this country – and other countries – actually understand this?

The local authorities do not work, not as they are at present and basing this “Big Society” idea in that way in local authorities will not work. Councils waste resources and money and are top heavy. A change is needed and a completely new way of doping things.

Having elected heads of councils would be one idea, like for the Sheriff and Council chiefs in most places in the USA. And ideally they should have to stand for re-election every year or two. That way they would take much greater care of how the taxes are spent. Only then, really, are the people empowered. When they control who runs their local authority. And this is aside from elected local councillors.

Then, talking of taxes, the council tax must be collected and kept local. It has no business going to Whitehall first to be distributed back from there around the country.

This will, I am afraid, as per usual, just a load of hot air and nothing really beneficial. It is a dressing up of cuts in involving the voluntary sector instead of really and truly empowering the people to do things for themselves, including the grassroots policing of their areas.

People and governments in Britain just do not get it.

© 2010