Ministers told to prepare for ‘big society’ spending boost

By Alex Stevenson

Efforts to establish the 'big society' will need substantial government spending, one of its biggest supporters has told

Conservative MP Jesse Norman said the government needed to prepare carefully for increased spending on the idea David Cameron has called his political "passion".

"It is not intrinsically opposed to all government spending on discretionary projects," Mr Norman said in's podcast on the 'big society'.

"Since part of the point of this is to empower human capability there are going to be some key areas where it would be a good idea to spend really rather a lot of money, provided the overall housekeeping is in order and the nation's balance sheet is in good enough shape.

"That's going to require some preparation."

Mr Norman said large increases in discretionary spending would have to be delayed until the government's finances were on a stronger footing.

"The austerity is clear. The importance of saving money is clear," he acknowledged.

"The key thing is to be laying the foundations so that when we do come out of it, and the government does have some cash to spend, we can spend it appropriately."

Critics of the idea have claimed it is a cover for the coalition's spending cuts agenda, by transferring responsibility from the state to unprepared members of the public.

Mr Norman, one of the coalition's most enthusiastic advocates of the 'big society' and the author of a key text in its formulation, said the idea did not necessarily involve a reduction in spending, however.

He said he wanted to see more spending on policy initiatives which promote "networks of human loyalty", including Mr Cameron's 'national citizen service'.

"What it amounts to is a Duke of Edinburgh type scheme for every young person in the country, but not only that but one that throws the son of the duke in with the lad from the local estate," he added.

"When you think of how society is becoming balkanised, I think the idea of breaking down those barriers is rather attractive and interesting."

The prime minister wants to see every 16-year-old given the chance to participate in a two-month summer scheme of outdoor activities and community service.

MPs on the Commons' education committee have called for a radical rethink of the "regrettable" proposals, pointing out it would cost more than all youth services provided by local authorities put together.

Mr Norman said the idea could be "a remarkably interesting and exciting development" if done properly, however.

Support for the arts was another area where 'big society' funding could eventually prove worthwhile, he added.

Mr Norman said the evidence suggested music was a "fantastic liberator and discipliner of human talent", adding: "I think that's another area where the state could perfectly reasonably spend really rather a lot of money to enhance human capability."

Concerns about the impact spending cuts will have on the 'big society' were underlined yesterday by news of a 61% cut in funding for the Cabinet Office's Office for Civil Society.

"The 'big society' is a con, dreamt up by his so-called experts who have never spent a day working in the sector," public sector union Unite's national officer Rachael Maskell said.

"We don't want airy-fairy notions or blue sky thinkers. What the people of this country want to know is who will care for our parents in old age and our children now?"

Mr Norman insisted that the 'big society' sets an economic agenda as well as a social one, involving entrepreneurship, supporting companies as institutions and improving corporate governance.

"What is true is that we are in an economic hole and the 'big society's' got something to say about the economics of how we get out of it," he said.

"I look forward to the government continuing on this track, because I think it is profoundly important."