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Big Society debate must move on

By David Robinson

Our co-founder David Robinson has written a second open letter to the Prime Minister urging him to take quick measures to save the Big Society project. The full text of his letter, which is covered in the Guardian, is below:

Dear Prime Minister

We must move on. Many third sector voices have been raised since my open letter in December. It’s time now to end the hand wringing and get real.

Your admirable vision of the Big Society has taken a kicking not because it has suddenly become a bad idea but because expenditure cuts are destroying the services on which the most vulnerable depend, laying waste to the organisations which sustain those services and undermining the local infrastructure which enables us all to contribute. The desire, the will, to build a better society will go on, it is the means that are at risk. So what to do?

Use underspend and use it well: If unspent funds across Whitehall cannot be carried over, and often they can’t, invest, as Danny Alexander said, in activities “that will generate savings in future years.” It’s not happening. Use the money to establish Big Society Allocations within ministerial budgets to help communities bridge the looming gap and to invest in years to come in Social Impact Bonds or similar instruments. Alternatively transfer it immediately to the Transition Fund. Unequivocal direction on this issue now would release sustained benefit from this annual folly.

Cut and Invest: Replicate the model of the Cut and Invest committee proposed to the US Simpson Bowles deficit commission. A UK model might examine the impact of aggregated cuts on specific vulnerable groups and put forward proposals for reinvestment of a fraction of the total in preventative activity. It’s a practical mechanism for moving towards a society that no longer needs the resources to respond because it has developed the strengths to prevent.

Bank roll the Big Society Bank now for six months: Investment from the Big Society Bank was promised to support the sector through this difficult period. The unclaimed assets will come through but they aren’t yet. Government money to get the Bank going by April could be repaid by the end of the year. Why fiddle while Rome burns? The risk is minimal. It is, after all, a bank that we are building here.

Establish the Right to Reshape: Local authority cuts disproportionately affecting the voluntary sector are an abuse of localism. We need a new approach that balances the need for urgent action, the potential for the voluntary sector to play a full role in localism, the huge pressure on local budgets and the desire to reinforce local autonomy. Write to all local authorities asking them to introduce a six month moratorium on implementing cuts to third sector programmes and allow them the necessary breathing space in the phasing of their budgets. Ask both parties to use the time to clarify together service and community objectives and to co-design alternatives. Apply the same approach for 12/13 but with longer periods for reshaping provision. Make it an open letter that can be shared with agencies on the front line and make it strong. You’ve said that the Big Society is one of the three big goals for your premiership; don’t allow the vision to be undermined  or, indeed, allow progress to be blocked on the drive for  localism in all its richness and variety.

Embrace the principle and the specifics in the Legal Aid review. I talked a lot about Legal Aid in my previous letter – under current proposals welfare benefit, debt and housing advice will all be cut. The Cabinet Office review that has now been established to consider future funding for advice services is, effectively, a national example of the reshaping process that we are suggesting. Three things more…..  Pilot the Public Reading Strategy on the Legal Aid bill to engage the widest possible spread of expertise in shaping the future of this critical service. Hold off on the legislation until the review has reported and a long term approach has been agreed – to do otherwise would be dishonest and an abuse of the public money spent on the review. Apply the same approach to other national policies where services for the most vulnerable are at risk and where cuts are most likely to be both socially destructive and a false economy.

Explode the Transition Fund: The £100m Transition Fund is too small and too constrained to affect the revolution you envisage. One City supremo quoted in the financial press (CityA.M 9/2) said the £800m Bank tax was “fairly modest” and its impact would be “minimal”. Not in this sector it wouldn’t be and not in our most disadvantaged communities. Commit every penny to the Transition Fund. Revisit the rules, revise the limits. Invest now in a strong and enterprising voluntary sector with the capacity to work on bigger public service contracts and with the experience and the desire to deliver the Big Society. Again this would be a bold call but half measures have been tried already and they are not enough. Replacing some of the money that has been lost to the sector in this way may set back the repayment of the national debt by a week or two. Fail to do so and it could take years to pay off the costs, social and financial.  How big is your leadership?

Prime Minister, my concern in this letter, as in December, is not for the producer interests of the voluntary sector. It is for the needs of those with whom we work. Move on. And take us with you.

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