03.03 The Big Society

03-03A snapshot from Terry Gilliams distopian Satire ‘Brazil’ 1985

With the launch of the ‘national happiness index’ and an audibly rally cry matching that of the strapline to the advertising campaign by the fictional and ever pervasive ‘Ministry Of Information’ of ‘we’re all in it together;’ you would be forgiven for thinking that the coalition government had watched Gilliam’s Brazil and missed the dystopian satire bit, but really chimed with the faceless, bureaucratic, popularist government model.

The almost meaningless rhetoric of the big society slogan is met; in unison by a response of ‘what does that mean then?’ However, it does have real implications; particularly on the services that the government is mandated to deliver to its citizens.

The big society has become a phrase synonymous with the political and social approach to the current economic problems being faced by the country. Although reference to this strategy pre-dates the coalition government and the most recent global economic crash; it is only now that these ideas are in a position to become on a scale and depth that will affect the course of the public and private sectors.

So what does it mean?

It would seem that a startling small number of people have any idea of how this notion or vision of the workings of the individual and the state; will manifest themselves in practice. One thing that is clear is the supposition that there will be a decentralisation of some government and local authority powers.

It would seem that the current trail of thought in the political and social arenas does not allow us to consider the most recent financial shortfall as an inevitable construct of how we (as a nation and a global society) have built our economies. A cycle of relative economic growth followed by relative economic contraction has been prevalent for decades, yet does not trigger us to look at the structure of our economy but instead to simply cut back its scale when we have a conservative government and increase the scale of spending under a labour government.

However, when focusing on the response of local councils, a few have outlined their visions for a big society strategy. For local authorities these proposals are simply an alternative to making between 15% and 25% cuts across the board which would of course result in non-democratic institutions unable to meet their own mandates and would be tantamount to political suicide.

So what are these visions?

Lambeth, Liverpool, Barnet, Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham and perhaps Suffolk county council have outlined strategies which would could be classed as distinct council models working under the title of the big society.

Each vision looks at how future council management and services may be take decisions and be administered differently to the current model.

Lambeth council have developed the idea of The co-operative council. This model puts a greater focus on promoting a more active civil society. The idea is that a larger proportion of services will be run by cooperatives run by former council employees.

Suffolk county council have been exploring the idea of minimalist council with the idea of self-reliance being at the heart of the initiative. The local authority would outsource all of its services, with competition from bidders pushing prices down. Local communities would choose the best provider from the providers.

Barnet council were the first to identify a big society model for themselves. The tag Easy council was used to describe a model where consumer choice was the overriding value. This model limits the number of service that a resident can use without paying for it. In this way vein; the council will commission services if there is large enough demand for it.

Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster council are proposing to unite to create a supercouncil. The idea is to create a more efficient system by merging some back office services departments of different councils.

Liverpool city council have developed the social justice council. The idea here is to focus resources on where they are needed most. Under this model a council would retain more of its in house services and focus its cuts less deprived parts of the community.

Clearly each of these models have their own strengths and weaknesses – but they are the clearest visions to date. There will inevitably be some merging of strategies once these models are implemented. However, the question remains how do councils remain democratic in their mandate to provide certain services and operate in clearly outlined ways. The divergence from the now traditional council model will have its supporters and critics, but a local authority’s ability to maintain democratic structures may be put under stress through the execution of these visions with the meaning of equality contradictory in each manifestation.

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This article was written in 2011 and as such is written in the context of the social and political conditions of the time

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