Political Promise

Should Labour Love or Loathe The Big Society?

In Jonny Roberts on February 28, 2011 at 10:02 am

Jonny Roberts writes: “I’ve also been careful not to write off the Big Society – volunteering, mutualism and local democracy are certainly something I support – in this I am certainly not alone. So herein lies Labour’s problem with tackling the Big Society project – should we love or loathe?”

Ally Fogg writes in last week’s Observer that David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ will herald the end of universal services in favour of ‘postcode lotteries’. I’ve been saying the same thing for months but it’s always nice for some reassurance provided in this case by Mr Fogg. Nonetheless I’ve also been careful not to write off the Big Society – volunteering, mutualism and local democracy are certainly something I support – in this I am certainly not alone. So herein lies Labour’s problem with tackling the Big Society project – should we love or loathe?

There is perhaps as much to loathe about the Big Society as there is to love. Firstly mass volunteering already exists in the UK, boosting it is a fine goal but cutting finance from fine charitable institutions before they have a chance to boost their promotion for private donations is, to use the parlance of our times an ‘Epic Fail’. Secondly asking council workers to cut a day’s work (and a day’s pay) to volunteer their new-found ‘day off’ working in a library or leisure centre, normally staffed by paid council employees, as suggested by the Government’s Big Society czar is just plain wrong. Thirdly, and the point of this blog, giving local people more say over their services sounds fantastic but can, as Ally Fogg points outs, lead to the wealthy villages surrounding a town to cut their local taxes for services they don’t use whilst the poorer estates have to carry on paying top rate (and thus a higher percentage of their income) to pay for services they desperately need.

The third point is the stickler for Labour. Localism is supposedly the way of the world, it’s what everyone craves, at least that’s what the Daily Mail tells us, yet (and hypocrisy like this is, of course, so very rare from the Daily Mail!) the same paper tells us post-code lotteries, or in other words good services in one town crap one’s in another, are certainly not what we want. How to solve a problem like localism? Labour needs to use its 2-year policy review process to unlock this puzzle, we need a national debate over what services could and should be decided by the county council, local council, the parish/community council or even the market, and what services should preserve their England-wide universalism.

Education is being pushed two ways at the same time. Academies/Free Schools give more power over how the school is run to the schools themselves rather than the local council whilst putting ultimate responsibility for education into the hands of the Department for Education i.e. the national UK government (the notion that there should perhaps be an English government responsible for such things as in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is a whole other debate). The underlying reason for this is that Blair and now Cameron believe local councils don’t run schools very well. Health – in terms of hospitals, GPs etc. – have long been outside the remit of the local council, again no-one (except the Lib Dems) trust councils with cancer. Yet despite this Sure Start centres, child protection, old age care and other support for the most vulnerable remains in the hands of councillors, most of whom are elected to sort out pot-holes and make sure the bins are picked up.

Labour, whenever they next return to Government must push ahead with their plans for a National Care Service but with a wider remit, beyond care for the elderly, to support vulnerable children, rehabilitate drugs and alcohol addicts and support families in need. Taking these vital services out of local councils would leave Labour able to scrap a whole tier of local government – county councils – and replace with unitary district councils with responsibility for waste, economic development (in partnership with new LEPs), transport and public health services. Youth clubs, community centres even leisure facilities could be devolved further to more empowered community/parish councils where appropriate. These are the services people should absolutely be able to define for themselves and their communities, where post-code provision matters less and delivering the services the local populace desire can take precedence.

Just to add a cherry on top – this could help deliver millions in efficiency savings at councils.


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