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Battered Britain needs a social alternative

By David Robinson

A speech delivered at a meeting on Tuesday night organised by the think tank Civil Exchange, and hosted by the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network, has been reported in Patrick Butler’s Guardian blog today. Below the full text of the speech is reproduced:


Let’s take stock:    We have an aging population and an emerging generation without work. Incomes are falling, unemployment is high, cuts are hurting and the road to recovery is long and difficult.

Without any more relevant experience to guide us those of us who work in our public service or the third sector carry on as if nothing has changed for as long as we can. We defend our own, inevitably at the expense of others, and try to plug the gaps as they appear. As this work becomes more and more demanding we have less and less time to think beyond the here and now. Heads down, battle on.

Short term “solutions” replace strategic priorities though we know that they will fail us badly in the longer term. “Non essential” services like detached youth work, social advice and open access play are cut despite the evidence that this kind of early action forestalls far greater expense at a later date.

Attempts are made to reconfigure but they are small scale, randomly scattered and  mostly cosmetic, designed more to seduce a fund holder than to transform a service.

Some provider interests are stronger than others. They survive saved by the strength of their lobbying rather than any more balanced assessment. And some important things don’t get done at all, especially in the most disadvantaged areas.  Less for less.

In short public services are changing and will change more fundamentally in the decade from 2010 to 2020 than in any comparable period since the 1940s. Then there was a commitment to build, an overarching vision, a coordinated plan and overwhelming popular support. Today, across government and opposition, there is a will to reduce expenditure but no unifying vision and no coherent plan. Last time Beveridge was the architect. This time there are no drawings, just random demolition.

So…I’ve used up 20% of my time and still not mentioned the Big Soc. Why? Because if it ever meant a thing it doesn’t matter now, not in the disadvantaged communities that I know best. This is a Britain that isn’t broken and it never was but it has been battered … battered by the storms in the global economy and battered by a government who have chosen to pass on a disproportionate share of the sacrifice to those with the most limited capacity to bear the burden.

Let’s be clear. In debating detail we sometimes lose the big picture. Britain 2012 is a rich country. Dismantling legal aid, cutting welfare benefits, reducing expenditure on public services are legitimate political choices but they are choices.

Striving to achieve 83% of the deficit reduction through cuts in spending 17% through raising taxes and most of that from VAT, the most regressive tax is a choice.

The big  poster targeting benefit fraud  in the bus shelters of Canning Town is not matched by one targeting tax evasion in the cab ranks down the road in Canary Wharf even though maximising tax revenue would make a far bigger difference to the exchequer than minimising benefit fraud. That is a choice. One that may reflect popular priorities as well as political ones but its not how I understood the promise on the table at No.10 on that May morning two years ago.  Then it was admittedly vague but vaguely hopeful.

Today we see it for what it was – as much use as an ashtray on a motor bike

We know better than to expect a restoration of public expenditure in the near future, indeed it will get worse, but we should know also and should say that ignoring the most disadvantaged, worse still blaming the poor for their poverty, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, is no part of the answer. Often the public discourse on these matters is about right and left. Sometimes its about right and wrong. Vilifying and victimising is just wrong

So what to do?

The “economic alternative” is much discussed but it’s not enough. Over the last two years we’ve heard splutterings of opposition – most, and most effectively on, for instance the legal aid bill, from outside parliament, but that too is not enough. We need also alternative ways of thinking about the nature of the society we want to build, about our expectations of that society and of one another and about the public policy that is needed for the achievement of our ambitions.

It was because I thought that there were wisps of such thinking in the earliest iterations of the Big Soc that I dared to hope.  Perhaps they were swept away by the economic choices, perhaps by political realities; perhaps they were never more than a speech writer’s conceit. Whatever. We need more than ever now from govt, from opposition, from civil society a social alternative. Driven, perhaps, by financial imperative but begetting a bold approach to government and beginning with a 21st century ambition for the society we seek.

For me  prevention should be its operating logic We should be ambitious for a society where we don’t wait for trouble and pay the price  but where  we are all ready and able to benefit from opportunity, to learn at primary school, to thrive in secondary, to be job ready at 17 and ready to support children of our own when the time comes, to  be ready and able also  to manage adversity – to cope with losing a job or a relationship, to rebuild after illness or bereavement, to adapt to change..

A community that is ready for everything.  That would be the goal of my “big society” – the question we were all asked to address – and it is the goal of the Early Action Task Force – a goal that was once a vision but is now a necessity.

We’ve seen Barnet Councils “graph of doom” depicting the unsustainably of current spending profiles –We’ve heard about the “3 Ds” – dementia, depression and diabetes strangling NHS budgets when all three conditions could be managed more effectively and for less money at an earlier stage. We know  that effective youth work reduces crime, potentially, as we approach the anniversary of the summer riots, the fire next time.  If business as usual in this battered Britain is no longer an option then reducing future liabilities in these ways is no longer a luxury. It’s a financial imperative

My three wishes for this Battered Britain? Many more of course but to begin with…

  1. Every deliverer of services for public good required to develop a transition plan gradually, systematically and transparently shifting expenditure from acute services to prevention with administrative reform of the accounting procedures that currently work against a common sense, preventive approach.
  2. All new policy, local and national, subjected to the next generation test – how will this policy, this provision, improve their lives? Will it reduce need or postpone it storing up problems for our children? If it fails it falls.
  3. To all who are concerned about these things: Step back, Look up.  National Citizens Service, bits of localism, Community organisers may or may not be to your liking in every detail but its deeper questioning, constructive thinking, bigger, broader, longer term , that we need now. No more kick and rush after every loose ball.  Get your heads in the game. Change it

One Response to “Battered Britain needs a social alternative”

  1. [...] David Robinson’s speech – at a meeting organised by the thinktank, Civil Exchange, as a follow-up to their recent publication The Big Society Audit was passionate and well targeted but I left the meeting feeling slightly bemused. [...]

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