Comment: Big leadership is needed for the ‘big society’

The prime minister’s vision of the ‘big society’ has been criticised 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.

By David Robinson

David Cameron said on Monday that the cuts will take us back to 2007 levels. This is only true if you include national debt repayments and social security. Spending on public services is returning to 1997 levels and because the cuts are being applied so quickly they are disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable – the “easiest to cut” rather than the least needed. Large areas will be left without core services like youth work or advice services.

Nothing new was offered on Monday to deal with these issues. The ‘transition fund’ (which has already closed), the ‘big society’ bank and other relaunched programmes (mostly replacing existing ones with smaller sums) are worth at best about £0.5 billion. Total cuts to public sector funding of vital third sector services amount to more than £4 billion. The ‘big society’ “answer” is, in the short term, utterly inadequate. Maybe, in time, more will be done voluntarily but not without an infrastructure, not in areas where the need is greatest and most specialised and certainly not right away.

Importantly however this is not to condemn the basic principle of the ‘big society’. 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. It is what we and others like us do and have done for years. The desire, the will, to build a better society will go on. It is the means that are at risk.

It is not too late to get back on track. Here’s how:

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. The PM must 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 apply the same approach for 2012/13 but with longer periods for reshaping provision. It must be an open letter that can be shared with agencies on the front line and it must be strong.

Embrace the principle and the specifics in the legal aid review:

Under current proposals legal aid for welfare benefit, debt and housing advice will all be cut. A Cabinet Office review has now been established to consider future funding for advice services and 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.

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”. 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.

Explode the ‘transition fund’:

The £100 million ‘transition fund’ is too small and too constrained to affect the revolution that the PM envisages, and although he spoke about it at the relaunch it actually closed last month. One City supremo quoted in the financial press last week said the £800 million 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.

My concern is not for the producer interests of the voluntary sector. It is for the needs of those with whom we work. Replacing some of the money that has been lost to the sector, or at least imposing a moratorium on local cuts and allowing the space to review, would set back the restoration of the deficit by a week or two; stick with the cuts and we’ll be paying the price for a generation. Building the ‘big society’ needs courage, vision and, above all, big leadership. How big is this prime minister?

David Robinson is co-founder of Community Links. He first spoke out on voluntary sector cuts and the ‘big society’ with his open letter to the prime minister in December.

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