By Will Horwitz
Community Links co-founder David Robinson has written an open letter to the Prime Minister, which features in today’s Guardian. The full letter reads as follows:
Dear Prime Minister,
I thought the Big Society would be over by Christmas. You kindly invited me to a launch discussion in the Cabinet Room in May and I heard you use the phrase over and over again. I thought it was little more than a speech writer’s flourish but I was surprised and impressed that you should devote so much time to it within the first week or so of your premiership. Six months in, there is scarcely any corner of the public domain that isn’t looking to embrace new forms of participation, ownership and management, and the phrase is officially the Oxford English Dictionary’s “word of the year.”
I am glad that I was wrong. The idea that we should all have the opportunity and the encouragement to play a part in the communities we share is not a new one but it is a good one. I admire your big hearted vision and I respect your clear sighted perseverance in pursuing it, but I am worried.
Next year those who need our services – many amongst the most vulnerable in the country – will need them more. The expenditure cuts are a double whammy in communities like ours, increasing unemployment (the public sector is the biggest local employer) and closing services at the same time.
You have described Community Links as “one of Britain’s most inspiring community organisations”. Over 1,500 volunteers helped deliver our services to more than 30,000 people last year, supporting staff who themselves often got to know us as service users or volunteers, and the majority of whom live locally. We are concerned about the future of our community here in East London, and we are concerned also about the future of our own organisation. Organisations like us are surely the bedrock of the Big Society, and we are wobbling.
Without buildings, leadership, training, and support we can’t grow our “little platoons” quickly enough to fill the gaps. Indeed we won’t even be able to sustain them at their current level. Cuts in public expenditure in many areas of our work, coupled with major changes in Legal Aid and New Deal mean most of our budget for 2011/2012 is at risk. Ultimately this will diminish our community not make it stronger.
Take the changes in the benefit system, for example. In time they will simplify the system but in the short term they will lead to confusion and uncertainty, again particularly for the most vulnerable. DWP’s own white paper acknowledges this and expects third sector agencies to provide the necessary support. Removing legal aid funding for advice on welfare benefits will wipe out the agencies who would otherwise resolve these problems and there is next to no chance of local councils picking up the tab when most are stopping funding, not increasing it. This strategy is penny wise, pound foolish. Many of the most disadvantaged, particularly the elderly, will struggle on until the problem becomes a crisis. They will endeavour to live without any or all of their full entitlement by cutting expenditure on essentials like food, rent and fuel bills until illness, eviction or breakdown forces an emergency response.
I write because I know that this nightmare scenario is a million miles away from your personal intentions for the Big Society and because it doesn’t need to be like this. Here are three reasons why I believe you should act now and three actions I suggest you take:
First remember what happened to the last President Bush when Hurricane Katrina moved Barack Obama to begin arguing that Americas biggest problem wasn’t a budget deficit, it was an empathy deficit. Forcing an unsustainable pace on a barrage of uncoordinated cuts that hit the poorest hardest is no an act of God. Why let it be your Katrina?
Second we know that building fences at the top of the cliff rather than running ambulances at the bottom makes sense financially as well as socially. Spending money to prevent social problems from arising reduces the deficit in ways that foster a Big Society.
Consider Kylie for instance. She first encountered Community Links as a troubled teenager and was referred to our project for young women at risk of committing crime. Eventually she became a volunteer, then a children’s worker. She’s now Deputy Manager of one of our centres, helping other young people reach their potential, building society one after-school club at a time. Cutting services like these now would come back to haunt you before the end of the lifetime of this government.
Third, you know there is such a thing as society. You toughed it out when political commentators, cynics in your own party, even people like me, dismissed the Big Society as a shallow diversion. You’ve staked your political future on the prospect of a stronger, more compassionate society. Don’t let your own government’s policies undermine it.
What to do? Firstly coordinate your plans and phase their introduction. Consider how the aggregate is impacting on the sector and ultimately on our communities. Do a serious and urgent impact assessment. I sense that there is the will in much of the sector to reset the business model but it can’t be done overnight. I’m not asking you to renege on policy pledges but give us more time. Allow, for instance, Legal Aid to continue to support the advice sector until the welfare reforms are bedded down and the simplified system removes the need for much of this help. You are likely to have at least another four years. Allow us to draw breath or you will kill off the agencies you need to build the society you seek.
Resurrect Merlin, the rumoured Big Society Bank deal with the bankers. Make it big and bold. We need £5bn in this sector to sustain our position. The unclaimed assets, which were already destined for the Bank, should not be included in the calculations. These never “belonged” to the banks anymore than the cash in my Post Office savings account “belongs” to the Post Office. Capitalise the Bank with much more than can be drawn immediately from unclaimed assets and then enable it to spend on sustaining essential, particularly preventative, work with those most at risk. And, yes, spend as well as lend. Like you I’m an enthusiast for social enterprise and a supporter of social investment. The unclaimed assets must, as already planned, be ring fenced and lent for this purpose but, our most desperate need now is to maintain those essential services for the most vulnerable which will never be self sustaining. Projects like that which found Kylie, or that Kylie now runs. It is these that are least likely to survive and it is the public funding of this provision that marks out our economy as that of a civilised and compassionate society.
Third, promote earlier action. The cuts, made in the wrong place, could begin a cycle of diminishing support for prevention resulting in increased demand for more and more expensive acute provision. Or they could build a society where social problems are prevented in advance, rather than tackled when it’s too late.
A swift and radical switch of resources from acute services to prevention is impractical but a steady, incremental migration could be achieved. Transition plans and milestones modelled on Government’s approach to the reduction of carbon emissions would frame it as the expected behaviour of all progressive, forward thinking organisations. Imagine a society that no longer needs the resources to respond because it has developed the strengths to prevent. Let that be your legacy.
On that sunny day in May you spoke with such passion about building the Big Society together. Don’t let us down.