Will the "big society" help big cuts?

Phil Redmond and David Cameron Voluntary groups are asking if they will get enough money from the government
David Cameron came to Liverpool to explain why his "big society" idea was about communities finding their own solutions to problems - not just taking money from central government.

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But before the speeches at the launch event were over he received his first demand for cash.

Television producer Phil Redmond - the creative force behind shows such as Grange Hill and Brookside - stepped from the podium and handed an envelope to the prime minister.

It contained a bid for money for Liverpool, Mr Redmond explained, on terms to be agreed.

That very public request for funds raised a laugh, and highlighted a key challenge for Mr Cameron's plans.

He wants communities to rethink how they solve their own problems. Many will suggest the solutions involve cash as well as goodwill.

'Number-waving'

The big society is the prime minister's big idea and some Conservatives fear it failed to enthuse the public during the general election campaign.

At its heart is the belief that "top-down, top-heavy" government saps initiative and innovation from communities, public sector workers and individuals. The alternative is to liberate councils and community groups to do more for themselves.

So the government is offering help to overcome bureaucratic obstacles, but is not handing out huge amounts of money. It will help train community organisers, for instance, but they will not receive state-funded salaries.

In the words of one senior figure: "We're not in the business of waving around big numbers to show how macho we are."

Dormant funds from bank and building society accounts will be available via what is described as the Big Society Bank to enable small organisations to bid for government work.

One hundred million pounds will be available at first. The total sum could amount to £400m.

Support for the ideas crosses some political divides. Phil Redmond is no Conservative cheerleader. He made a high-profile appearance at the launch of Andy Burnham's Labour leadership campaign.

'Cuts agenda'

The Liberal Democrat-controlled Sutton council is one of those making the case for the big society.

But Labour believes cuts elsewhere will leave the voluntary sector worse off. Leadership contender Ed Miliband says the government is "cynically attempting to dignify its cuts agenda".

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has warned it fears charities - which receive a third of their money from government - will be seen as soft targets for cuts.

Mr Cameron told an audience in Liverpool reducing the deficit was his duty, but building the big society was his passion.

He believes the government should not, in his words, pour money down the throat of wasteful, top-down government schemes.

His administration will hope local groups respond enthusiastically to his call for innovation.

But as Mr Redmond proved, some of those who share his ideas will be hoping the government offers them funds, as well as encouragement.

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