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The meaning of the shared society

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Tony Blair delivered his first Conference speech as PM on October 1st 1997. He mentioned, amongst much else, the advent of the “giving age”.

Early on the morning of the 2nd I received an urgent request from the policy team at No 10 – would I attend a meeting about the “giving age” at 6.30 that night? Excellent, I thought, an early opportunity to understand what the new epoch means for us, the sector and our plans for the New Jerusalem.

I think there were 6 of us at the meeting. It might have been 5. We were asked, by way of introduction to say what we thought the “giving age” might mean. I assumed the challenge was a kind of icebreaker. It turned out to be the purpose of the meeting. Apparently the phrase had been inserted in the speech hours before it was delivered and after the PM had asked for more rhetorical flourishes. Everybody at No 10 was surprised when the press picked up on it. Now the Policy team were being asked to invent the meaning. Quickly.

Unsurprisingly the “giving age” is not generally remembered as Blair’s finest hour . Indeed it is not generally remembered. Full stop.

David Cameron’s “Big Society” was an altogether more considered proposition crafted in opposition and floated in the media long before the election. It also hasn’t been forgotten largely because the PM invested so much personal effort and political capital in sustaining the rhetoric throughout his first term. Despite his perseverance, however, the practical legacy is minimal. Community Organisers and Big Society Capital (BSC) are usually cited as the principal achievements but as the Social Wholesale Bank began life under Gordon Brown before being rebranded as the BSC even this sparse litany is an exaggeration.

Big Society always suffered from being the politically acceptable half of an idea that actually had two parts. In practise it was as much about a smaller state as it was about a bigger society. As I tried to point out in my open letters to David Cameron (which you can read here and here) the simultaneous erosion of so much of the public realm was desperately at odds with the promotion of ideas about community empowerment and social support.

That’s why I am, on first acquaintance, a little more optimistic, although instinctively cautious, about Theresa May’s “shared society” unveiled on Monday. The phraseology at least seems to acknowledge the importance of the state alongside the citizen and civil society. If the linguistic shift is intentional I think it is an important one but I know it is a big if.

As I write on the evening after the PM’s speech, I am fervently hoping that there isn’t a little huddle of worthy souls summoned urgently to stare intently at a blank flip chart in the bowels of Downing Street and to try to fathom out what the devil might be meant by the shared society.

The ‘Big Society’ manifesto gap? A call for leadership

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Can it really be just five years ago that David Cameron was inviting us all to “join the government of Britain”?
2015-04-30-1430393278-2239568-Tory2010.jpgThe 2010 Conservative Party Manifesto began with an audacious challenge: “Some politicians say: ‘give us your vote and we will sort out all your problems’. We say: real change comes not from government alone. Real change comes when the people are inspired and mobilised, when millions of us are fired up to play a part in the nation’s future. Yes this is ambitious. Yes it is optimistic. But in the end all the Acts of Parliament, all the new measures, all the new policy initiatives, are just politicians’ words without you and your involvement.”

The 2015 Conservative Party Manifesto contains only one invitation for public involvement in the nation’s future – a pledge to build on what David Cameron calls our “nation of volunteers” by passing a law requiring public sector employers and companies with more than 250 staff to give staff up to three days a year to do voluntary work. All good in so far as it goes but apparently that’s it. One solitary requirement to do what many big companies (and also lots of smaller ones) do well already.

In 2010 it was the “Big Society election” when opposition leader David Cameron raided natural Labour territory for a paean to solidarity, compassion and cooperation and a promise to extend localism, citizen engagement and cross sector collaboration. No hustings was complete without reference to the power of the people.

Maybe only Nick Clegg signed up for national service but others, myself included and particularly in the voluntary sector, welcomed the rhetoric whilst searching desperately for the substance. Gradually the penny dropped. The emperor, if not completely starkers, was shivering in his boxers. Disappointment turned to disillusionment for hope dashed is worse than no hope at all.

Even Big Society minister Nick Hurd, a solid and often isolated beacon was eventually shabbily dismissed on the empty pretext of the PMs drive for more women and greater diversity in Government. The new minister was a man, middle aged, white and hot foot from the treasury.

The free thinking, idealism of Steve Hilton, albeit sadly unspecific, has now been replaced in the Tory high command by the grinding disciplines of Lynton Crosby. There is no big open hearted renewal of the “join me in government” invitation in this year’s manifesto just one modest pledge that will, apparently, help to “build a stronger society”. Would that it were that simple.

I have owned the naivety of my own false optimism, but I still defend the value of the cross party core of the Big Society proposition – neighbourhood politics and localism, co-ops and community organising, volunteering, mutualism, and the small battalions. In practice, the policies, though worthy were thin and fatally undermined by public expenditure cuts in other places but the fundamental principles were still good ones, not new but good, humane and enduring.

That’s why I appealed last year for the rehabilitation of those principles in this years manifestos. Now, with just a week to go in the campaign, I am unable to find any substantial reference in any major speech by any significant political figure (beyond the volunteering pledge) to these ideas.

Perhaps the derision of his own colleagues (not all of them on the back benches) was too painful and damaging for Cameron to fullfill the early promise or to repeat the exercise this time around but what of the opposition? When Labour leadership candidates traded references to “community organising” immediately after the 2010 election it seemed that the new opposition would be contesting the social turf. Ed Miliband subsequently encouraged this early confidence with the widely trumpeted appointment of international community organising guru Arnie Graf. For a while his influence was apparently formidable. Now it seems to have disappeared entirely, along with Arnie himself, back to the United States. I wonder if he and Hilton, now exiled to Stanford University, ever relive the glory days together?

The announcement of the Manchester deal, just before the campaigns began in earnest, rekindled my optimism. The joining up and devolution of health and social care services along with other devolved powers for the Manchester region suggested a late flowering of localism . As greater Manchester is Labour controlled and led by Labour grandee Sir Richard Leese it offered a rare opportunity for both Labour and Conservatives to share credit.

What happened? The national Labour leadership spoke out against the deal. Study the text and it is difficult to conclude that there was really any other reason than “not invented here”. It was the kind of mean spirited and small minded tactics that get politics a bad name.

Yet whilst our political leaders have been largely retreating from this territory others, perhaps less obvious, have been crowding in. The Bishops recent “who is my neighbour?” letter to the people was an extraordinarily even-handed but effective exposition of the common good and Andy Haldanes “social value of volunteering” speech in which he likened the volunteering sector to the energy sector for its scale and significance, was made yet more remarkable by the fact that Mr Haldane is the deputy governor of the Bank of England.

These ideas still do have resonance with a lot of very different people and, more than ever they do still matter There is still time. Here are five things that I would like to hear the party leaders say in the run up to May and deliver in the next five years

  1. We know that the government alone can’t do everything and that a top-down state is too often oppressive rather than enabling. But contracting out public services shouldn’t be about passing this role unchanged on to the private sector or others. As decision-makers we will ensure that public procurement at central and local levels is accessible for the voluntary sector, and works with them – learning from their expertise and local experience as well as supporting them to innovate and deliver.
  2. We acknowledge diseconomies of scale and will prioritise public service provision that is “local by default”, that builds from the principles of co-design and co-production, that, put simply, engages the people it seeks to serve.
  3. If we are to involve more citizens in decision-making and allow local providers, statutory and voluntary, to pool resources and deliver the best service then, paradoxical though it may seem, the aspiration must have much stronger direction from the top. Requiring councils to work with local partners and to integrate budgets will generate the change that successive ministers have talked about but only tinkered with. We will introduce a local authority “duty to collaborate” with a matching “right to lead”, empowering other local service providers to require the co-operation of the council if it fails to step up.
  4. The banks that crashed the economy must play their part as responsible corporate citizens. The Brown government introduced legislation to gather and redirect unclaimed assets from the high street banks – estimated at the time at £10bn. Less than £0.5bn has surfaced so far. There was an expectation at the time that the original group of contributors would be squeezed for more and the scheme extended to other financial institutions. Neither has happened. Potentially this represents an important pot for a voluntary and community sector that has struggled in recession but is so important to so many in the UK. We will go back for more.
  5. The public sector was designed to deliver reactive, acute services, targeted on occasional, exceptional need. The need is now neither occasional nor exceptional: more and more people need more and more help. The demand for acute public services is rising but the money to pay for them just isn’t there. We will adopt a need reduction approach to the development of public services, prioritising early action and working with the whole community to prevent problems from occurring, not pick up the pieces afterwards.

My message today is a call for leadership. Most of this agenda is not about right or left. It should not be owned by one party or another. It is about right and wrong and even a week away from Polling Day – it’s still not too late for a political leader to do the right thing.

Where now for the big idea?

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

This article first appeared in the Observer

Four years ago in the first week of the new government the PM met 20 community leaders to discuss an idea that, he said, meant more to him than any other. It has been widely mocked in the intervening years but as all the major parties put together their manifestos for 2015 the Big Society is still  discussed.   Why?  And where now for the big idea that won’t go away?

For a political idea that was disowned by the right and derided by the left, the Big Society has proved to be remarkably resilient.

I’ve heard it discussed by policymakers and politicians representing all three major parties in recent weeks. They have been talking about their manifestos for 2015.  Of course the exact phrase won’t make  the published programmes and references are often prefaced with a hushed and apologetic “I hesitate to mention the big society “ but that it is mentioned at all and in so many different places is testimony to the enduring importance of the political territory to which it once  laid claim.

Big Society could mean almost anything you wanted it to mean and that, perhaps, is why it won’t go away. For the Lib Dems there was resonance with neighbourhood politics and localism. Mutualism, coops and community organising spoke to Labour values. Volunteering and the small battalions were less popular with ministers but still dear to Tory rank and file.

In practice the worthy policies enacted in its name have been thin and fatally undermined by public expenditure cuts in other places but the fundamental ideas were good ones, humane and enduring.

It was the appeal of those timeless principles that brought 20 “community leaders”  to the PMs “Big Society summit” at Number 10 four years ago this week. David Cameron and Nick Clegg  led an open and lengthy discussion around the cabinet table. It was their first major engagement together just 6 days after the election. The hefty allocation of time at a very early stage in the lifetime of the new government persuaded many of us that the PM wasn’t exaggerating when he said that nothing in his manifesto was more important to him than the Big Society.

Maybe good intentions were thwarted by deeper seated inequalities, an obdurate party, an unyielding government machine or the unintended ravages of austerity or perhaps the “vision” always was a smokescreen for cuts. Either way Nat Wei and Steve Hilton, introduced that sunny morning as the central operatives behind the big idea, were both to leave government within two years trailing disappointment.

Four years on Westminster cabals are reassembling remnants of the BS not because it worked as a programme for government – it was never given a chance – but because the themes beneath the banner are too good to go away and too important to be ignored. Here’s how I would like to see them resurface in next year’s manifestos.

We all need the support of others, we all have something to give and we all benefit from feeling part of something bigger than ourselves.  We who seek your vote understand this commonality of experience and the willingness to engage; it will sit at the heart of our manifesto, be designed into all our policies, not designed out, and made real through a set of practical changes to which we are deeply committed.

We know that the government alone can’t do everything and that a top-down state is too often oppressive rather than enabling. But contracting out public services shouldn’t be about passing this role unchanged onto the private sector or others. We will ensure that public procurement at central and local levels is accessible for the voluntary sector, and works with them – learning from their expertise and local experience as well as supporting them to innovate and deliver.

We acknowledge diseconomies of scale and will prioritise public service provision that is  “local by default”, that builds from the principles of co design and co production, that, put simply, engages the people it seeks to serve.

If we are to involve more citizens in decision making and allow local providers, statutory and voluntary, to pool resources and deliver the best service then, paradoxical thought it may seem , the aspiration must have much stronger direction  from the top. Requiring councils to work with local partners and to integrate budgets will generate the change that successive ministers have talked about but only tinkered with.   We will introduce a Local authority “Duty to collaborate”  with a matching “Right to lead” empowering other local service providers to require the cooperation of the council if it fails to step up.

We will work with the long-term unemployed towards a range of outcomes that help them to support themselves and contribute to their communities – beyond paid employment alone – but  we recognise that the essence of volunteering is compulsion from within, not from without. We will support that impulse but not enforce it.

The International Baccalaureate involves a significant commitment to community service.  We  will ensure that the much more commonly experienced GCSE or A level syllabus offers something similar.

A little under half of us volunteer beneath the radar. Informal volunteering knits our society together and is at the heart of the British way of life. Previous governments have developed fiscal incentives for the giving of cash. We promise something comparable for the giving of time.

The banks crashed the economy but we need them to play their part as responsible corporate citizens. The Brown government introduced legislation to gather and redirect unclaimed assets from the High Street banks  – estimated at the time at  £10bn. Less than £0.5bn has surfaced so far. There was an expectation at the time that the original group of contributors would be squeezed for more and the scheme extended to other financial institutions. Neither has happened.  Potentially this represents an important pot for a voluntary and community sector that has struggled in recession but is so important to so many in the UK. We will be going back for more.

Whilst business leaders are spotting the spring shoots of economic recovery it is still November in the land of public services. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predict that by the end of this financial year 60% of the cost reduction programme will have yet to reach the front line. We might expect a delay but this doesn’t feel like the predictable lag between the time when an uplift in the private sector ripples out into the public. This feels like a disconnect. As the economy is picking up for some but grinding others further down we will revisit the cuts programme and, in particular, reconsider the pace and scale. We have been in it together, we will come out of it together.

Political slogans are the bathwater. Principles are the baby. In our desire to strike a radical new message for 2015 we will not throw out one with the other.

David Robinson was interviewed on the Today programme talking about the Big Society listen below
(Or BBC website listen again from 20:45)

Battered Britain needs a social alternative

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

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

Sir Ronald Cohen: improbable poster boy for the voluntary sector.

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

Sir Ronald Cohen is an improbable poster boy for the voluntary sector.
The immaculate suits and the monogrammed shirts hint at the personal fortune amassed in the distant, hard-ball arenas of venture capital where fellow high rollers speak in awe of of his accomplishments. Yet across the media last week and where ever these matters are discussed third sector leaders were queuing up to sing his praises as Big Society Capital was launched with the Prime Minister in support.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Big Society Capital isn’t that it has now been established but that it has taken so long to happen. Sir Ronnie chaired the Social Investment Task Force established by the Treasury in 2000 and then the Independent Commission on Unclaimed Assets in 2005. Its report launched by the then Chancellor Gordon Brown at Community Links one chilly, wet morning was not widely remarked. The press and sector glitterati, so prominent last week, were largely absent from the occasion but Sir Ronnie was already a man with a mission. Under successive Labour administrations and then with coalition ministers he pushed and persuaded and badgered with an elegant but steely determination.

But still it took years.

It was manifestly unjust that wealthy financial institutions should be allowed to keep money that wasn’t theirs for no purpose but their own. Almost everyone agreed, certainly in Westminster if not the City. Making it available for social purposes was self evidently reasonable. Channeling the resource into an investment bank would turn the windfall into a sustainable asset. What’s not to like?

But still it took years.

Whilst failure is always an orphan, success has many parents, and lots of people played a part in the birth of Big Society Capital. I have a theory that for every policy idea that survives the uncertainties of development there may be 20, 30 people who make a significant contribution. But of only a handful, maybe one or two for any single development, can it ever be said with due certainty, that without that particular individual, this would not have happened. Despite a just idea, an intelligent proposition and universal political support Big Society Capital would not have happened without Sir Ronald Cohen and many years of unyielding commitment.

That made me feel two things as I read the commentaries last week. I felt sad that our structures and our systems make change so very hard and I felt inspired. I’m not much fussed about immaculate suits and monogrammed shirts but Sir Ronnie’s clear sighted, bloody minded, never-say-die determination is indeed an example to us all.

David Robinson is a Trustee of Big Society Trust – the holding company for Big Society Capital. The task of the Trust is to ensure that the Bank remains true to its social mission for evermore.


Listen to Sir Ronald Cohen explaining the role of Big Society Capital in an interview on BBC Radio4 Today Programme:

The Writings on the Wall: After The Riots, Time For Cross-Sector Leadership

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Caroline Slocock is Director of Civil Exchange, a think tank set up to help civil society and the government work better together. Caroline is also an advisor to the Early Action Taskforce.

we love claphamIf ever there was a moment for the Big Society, the response to the riots is it. There’s a real opportunity here but government, the voluntary sector and businesses need to work together in new ways to help get things off the ground.

There’s definitely a new spirit abroad locally.  Last week I went to a reception in Clapham Junction for local business people and others who were affected by the riots there. Clapham Junction is a very diverse community where relative deprivation exists alongside considerable affluence. The event was held by HSBC, which had been broken into by children aged 10-14 and looted.

The dominant response amongst those at the event was not one of anger or revenge but thoughtfulness about why the riots had happened.  One woman, from a voluntary organisation working with young people, said she had predicted the riots back in the spring, based on the mood of desolation in two local deprived housing estates.

Many at the event were interested in how to better support and work with those children and young people. Some people I spoke to would like to help, perhaps giving time or money, but no-one was sure where to start.

I suspect there are many others who want to help but don’t know how. In the midst of the riots and immediately afterwards, many people who would not normally think of themselves as social activists stepped forward. At Clapham Junction, where the police were nowhere to be seen as rioting and looting took hold, a human cordon was formed by local people to stop rioters going into Northcote Road where many small shops, restaurants and bars exist. The next day many people came out with brooms to clear up. Graffiti started to appear on the boards protecting broken windows, which became a local message board read by numerous passers by. These were typical sentiments:

“Our Community will not let this happen again!”

“Incredibly sad to watch, but inspiring to see our community pull together afterwards. Clapham Rules!”

clapham grafitti

But how do you harness this positive energy? Who makes the first move to get things going?

One message that came through from the extended Today programme discussion  in Birmingham about the riots was that, rather than re-inventing wheels, there was a lot going on in communities already that needed better support, from the fire service working with young people; to former gang members helping to turn young people away from crime – to name but two.  Much of it is based in the voluntary sector.

It might be natural to look to local voluntary and community groups to start to bring people together in new ways – recruiting new volunteers, talking to local businesses and schools and young people about what went wrong.   However,  in reality, these groups are disparate and extremely hard-pressed, with little time or resources.   Realistically,  to get the ball rolling, there’s a need for some cross-sector leadership – starting nationally and extending to local level – involving central and local government, the voluntary sector and business leaders.

National leaders might start by calling for local discussions – perhaps based in schools – with children and young people, their parents, voluntary groups and local businesses about what went wrong and how to stop it happening again:   young people need to be part of the answer if they are to develop a stronger stake in their communities.  If they like the idea, local leaders might work together to set this up on the ground.

We also need to look at the infrastructure which stops this sort of thing happening in the first place and see what can be done to support it.  The Government should undertake urgently a national audit of the services  that support vulnerable children and young people and their parents,  to see if  those services have been seriously damaged by local authority cuts, as many claim. For example, the Confederation of Heads of Young People’s Services estimate that £100m had been axed by local authorities from youth services by April this year; and other critical services are also likely to have been hit.

If that audit demonstrates a need, the Government should establish a national fund to invest in that infrastructure, putting in money themselves but also inviting donations from banks and other businesses and charitable trusts.

Throughout, central and local government should talk about priorities with the voluntary sector and charitable trusts both nationally and locally. From their grass roots contact with local people they are likely to know where the problems are and where new investment is needed. A very good starting point, following on from the NCVO meeting with Nick Hurd on 14 September, would be for the Office of Civil  Society and the Department of Communities and Local Government to convene a working group to talk to the sector in more depth about why the riots happened and what should be done.

Working together, government, the voluntary sector and business could be a real catalyst to help learn the lessons and strengthen communities after the riots.

The budget does nothing to boost our shrinking society

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

A budget that hopes to grow the economy in the long term does very little to reverse the shrinking of society that has begun over the last year and will continue unabated.

In the poorest neighbourhoods of Newham, the dramatic and swift withdrawal of public funding is undermining services on which many of the most vulnerable rely, unemployment is high and rising, and huge changes to the tax and benefits system are just beginning to have an impact. Meanwhile local organisations like Community Links are having to close community centres and make staff redundant, shrinking not growing the Big Society.

In this context, George Osborne’s announcements of another increase in the personal allowance and more apprenticeships are welcome, and will indeed make a difference, but their effects will be felt too late and are dwarfed by the challenges currently facing our communities. As for the Big Society, small changes to encourage private donations will help little.

Bold action – a Right to Reshape for local authorities, significant extra support for the poorest communities, for the voluntary sector, or significant investment in the kind of early action work proposed by Frank Field and Graham Allen – was not forthcoming. Unlike a decision on fuel duty which comes into effect at 6.00pm this evening, measures on employment and tackling poverty will take months or years to make a difference, during which time people will fall deeper into poverty and further from employment. Cuts can be made fast, but investment takes time.

The budget does little to quell our fear that for the people we support, the next few years will be extremely tough.


The Big Society: an eventful year

Friday, March 18th, 2011

At a meeting at the Coin Street Neighbourhood centre on the South Bank in London at the end of March 2010 David Cameron along with 11 other members of the shadow cabinet launched his flagship Big Society proposals. “Let me be very clear: the big society does not mean no government,” the Prime Minister said “It means a new kind of government.”

As we approach the first birthday it is time to look back on what has been an interesting initial year. Many parents of a one year old will recognise the sleepless nights, tears and tantrums  – as well as searching questions about what the future might hold.

So in a timely move the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) launched an inquiry on the “Big Society” and has requested written submissions of evidence. We sent ours in today and have published it here as a download.

At Community Links we have had countless requests in recent months to participate in conferences and seminars discussing the “Big Society”. The frequently repeated comment that “nobody understands what it is” offers us all an opportunity: our organisation has been doing this stuff for over 30 years, we are experienced at providing practical support to individuals and neighbourhoods and we have a lot to contribute to shaping what the Big Society might become. But as we have said before we cannot do it alone and unfunded. It is the public funding of social provision that marks out our economy as that of a civilised and compassionate society. Its delivery should be a partnership between the state, the voluntary sector, business and local communities.

In brief our recommendations are that government should:

  • Clarify the values underpinning their vision of the Big Society, as well as their own role in it.
  • Slow down the pace of cuts to charities and community groups, ensuring there is time to redesign local services via a Right to Reshape.
  • Ensure that public sector cuts don’t undermine crucial early action work that saves money down the line – spending to prevent social problems from arising reduces the deficit in ways that foster a Big Society.
  • Recognise that the delivery of public services is a partnership between the state, business, charities and citizens, but that its public funding marks out our economy as that of a civilised and compassionate society
  • Ensure that community charities are not excluded from bidding for or winning public sector contracts by the design of the commissioning process, the size of the contracts, or a payment schedule that demands significant reserves. An unintended consequence of the opening up of public sector contracts could be their dominance by big corporate providers at the expense of organisations that embody the Big Society.
  • Recognise the role of Deep Value relationships in the provision of public services

Download the full text of our submission. We’d be keen to hear your views.

A significant response

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

In our open letters to the PM we made some suggestions about the relationship between local authorities and the voluntary sector. Yesterday in a speech at the NCVO conference Secretary of State Eric Pickles also addressed the subject.

“First”, he said unequivocally “it is reasonable to expect that councils will not pass on disproportionate cuts to local voluntary and community groups.

“Second, any sensible council has known for many months that we were facing tough times – so it is reasonable to expect that they will have been talking to voluntary and community groups at a very early stage about how services need to change.

“Third, it is reasonable to expect that they will have given three months’ notice or more when they think they need to end or alter a grant, or other support.”

And finally a glint of steel…

“If councils are being high-handed – I’ll consider giving our reasonable expectations statutory force.”

Not quite the Right to Reshape that we and others have been calling for and a ministerial speech is not the same as the letter from the PM  to council leaders everywhere that we had recommended  but these are for another day.  Credit today where credit is due: Backing the ministers “reasonable expectations” with “statutory force” is far more than the vague exhortations that we have heard before. It is a significant advance.


Never a ‘humiliating u-turn’

Monday, February 21st, 2011

It is a curious characteristic of our adversarial style of parliamentary politics that when ever a minister changes direction opposition leaders, who’ve been arguing for the change, taunt, belittle and deride. It’s never a “welcome development”, always a “humiliating u-turn” or a “blundering climbdown”. (Does anyone else with the slightest emotional intelligence ever use these phrases?)

Community Links can afford to be more generous. Last week was a better week.

Employment Minister Chris Grayling announced that the existing New Deal contracts for supporting people into employment will be extended right up until the start of the Work Programme in July, rather than ending in April as had been planned. As Community Links has been arguing for months, most recently at the DWP select committee hearing into the Work Programme a couple of weeks ago, this will ensure continuity of support for young unemployed people who, as figures continue to show, are bearing a disproportionate burden in this recession. It will make a difference in this community.

And we applaud the decision not to push ahead with cutting housing benefit for people who have been unemployed for over a year. This move makes good sense financially as well as socially, it’s humane and it’s smart politics.

Earlier in the week the Prime Minister reaffirmed his commitment to the principals of the Big Society. As we’ve said for months the Big Society is not a new idea but it is a good one. His continued commitment is encouraging but his recognition of the damage done by the local authority spending cuts was more interesting. Like his Third Sector minister Nick Hurd speaking at the select committee later in the week, he didn’t suggest that cuts would be abandoned but he did show some understanding of their likely impact.

Since we first spoke out in December others have joined a chorus which became a crescendo two weeks ago. Number 10 have acknowledged that last week’s efforts were in response to those voices. The clear distinction between the principles of the Big Society and the reality of the cuts opens the opportunity for a more intelligent dialogue. As the Prime Minister and his Minister have shown, it is entirely possible to be in favour of the former and worried about the later, as we are. But such a fundamental fault line makes for dysfunctional government.

Establishing the “Right to Reshape” would help to move us all forward. Local authority cuts disproportionately affecting the voluntary sector are an abuse of localism. The country needs 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. The PM should 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. He should ask both parties to use the time to clarify together service and community objectives and to co-design alternatives and he should apply the same Right to Reshape for future years but with longer periods for reshaping provision. He should make it an open letter that can be shared with agencies on the front line and he should make it tough.

What ever the opposition might say that would be neither a U turn nor a climb down. It would demonstrate Big Leadership and it would be welcomed here and in other disadvantaged communities through out the country.