David Blackburn

The small society

The small society
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No one, especially me, has comprehended the Big Society in its entirety. As far as I can gather, the state will shed some of its bureaucratic armour, but there is no clue as to where it will be dispensed. Writing in today’s Times, Rory Stewart, whose constituency contains one of the ‘Vanguard Communities; attempts a definition. He writes:

‘It is about decentralisation, but without giving more power to county councils. It is not necessarily about charities or even the private sector. It’s about collective action.’

Local government is voluntarism in action – many councillors work for free - and it is hardly the best advert. But, despite the waste and incompetence (which must be addressed, along with an anti-competitive bias), local government provides vital services that people do not have the time to do themselves. Who, Phillip Johnston asks, ‘wants to take over responsibility for libraries or housing estates? Would we not rather our councils continued to manage the service – only better?’

He’s right. Decentralised power must flow somewhere, and it will reach your hearth if it has bypassed local government. And we return to the questions of time. Voluntarism and collective action are highly beneficial, but they are generally small scale and rarely if ever permanent. It is the once weekly school run, the occasional visit to a community centre, the fortnightly shift for the Samaritans. Whilst you might have the inclination to chase overdue council tax bills in your block of flats, you certainly won’t have the time. As Steve Richards notes, the Big Society’s daring radicalism is illusory because government will not transfer the responsibility for public services if no one can run them. Without empowering and thoroughly reforming councils, the Big Society will be small.