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Rescuing Cameron's vision of the Big Society

Mark Easton | 16:20 UK time, Friday, 11 February 2011

David Cameron's chief policy adviser Steve Hilton has been told to stop doing deep thinky stuff for the moment and come back to rescue the PM's vision of a Big Society. No 10 has decided they need to "get a grip" or risk seeing the idea vanish in a puff of cynical smoke.

David Cameron


Next week Mr Cameron will attempt to breathe new life into an initiative which, he believes, is often misunderstood and unfairly mocked.

Expect an article in one of the Sunday papers, attributed to Mr Cameron himself, explaining how there is no contradiction between the dream of a Big Society and the reality of big cuts to the voluntary sector.

Expect a speech on Monday with the PM reaffirming his commitment to replacing Britain's "broken society" with a "Big Society".

Expect a series of announcements about extra cash for charities, more places in the National Citizen Service and new details on the creation of the Big Society Bank.

Downing Street is keen to stress that there are three key strands to the Big Society:

1) Encouraging social and voluntary action
2) Decentralising power
3) Reforming public services

The first of those, (often regarded as the definition of the Big Society), is the least critical, officials would argue. Yes, charities and volunteering are part of the vision, but more important is the way in which the centralised state withdraws to allow individuals and communities to take control and responsibility.

This still leaves them with a question of timing - what former Tony Blair speech-writer Phil Collins describes in The Times today as "the Eric Morecambe Problem" - all the right notes, not necessarily in the right order.

Local councils are making cuts to voluntary groups now, but the valuable new contracts charities are expecting to win to provide public services won't be signed until later. No 10 claims that the tens of billions in delivery deals with charitable organisations will eventually dwarf anything the sector loses in council cuts, but the extra income will arrive after the cuts have bitten.

It is the decentralising of power, though, that is the real problem for the Big Society evangelists. Local authorities are being given greater say in deciding what they spend their money on and, of course, what they cut. For Westminster to start bossing them around over the budgets for voluntary groups is at odds with the "localism" bit of the coalition agreement.

As Phil Collins puts it in his fictional memo from the PM to his strategy team: "Everyone assumes it's the cuts that are damaging us. But, actually, letting local authorities do what they want with the money is hurting us just as much." There is increasing evidence that councils are choosing to slash grants to charities rather than hit frontline services. "We have to get off this hook", Mr Collins suggests the PM should say. "We need some money in the Budget and a rethink on the pace of localism."

Mr Collins, himself a former No 10 strategist, wonders if Mr Cameron should "mandate" local authorities to "buy from the voluntary sector".

That won't happen. Instead, the PM will stress the importance of the £110m Transition Fund, a (relatively modest) pot of extra cash from the National Lottery to help charities survive cuts to their funding He will promote the Big Society Bank, which could have as much as £300m to invest in social projects from the summer.

But, essentially, Mr Cameron will do what he can to try to spike the argument that the Big Society is simply about telling people they must provide services for nothing that the state used to provide for free.


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