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The Big Society? Or the Big Excuse?

Patrick Burns | 14:11 UK time, Tuesday, 2 November 2010

David Cameron with Big Society poster

The Prime Minister says it's 'a call to action'. But all the polling evidence suggests the overwhelming majority of the electorate remain sceptical, seeing the emphasis on voluntary, community-based initiatives as no more than a political 'fig leaf', a convenient pretext to justify the biggest peacetime cuts in public sector jobs and services in living memory.

That's why David Cameron went out of his way during his keynote party conference speech in Birmingham last month to de-couple his 'big idea' from the Government's deficit reduction programme.

He reminded his audience that one of his first regional visits on becoming party leader five years ago was to Balsall Heath, just down the road from the convention centre. Once a notorious 'red light' district, its residents succeeded where bureaucracy and officialdom had failed.

Lawful community action cleared the streets of prostitution and parents are now able to accompany their children to and from school without having to dodge the seedy detritus of the street sex industry.

In an effort to scotch suggestions of any ulterior motive behind his vision of the Big Society, Mr Cameron pointed out that his tour of Balsall Heath had come long before the scale of Britain's economic woes became apparent.

But his argument failed to allay suspicions. Off-the-record or leaked comments, even from some of the Prime Minister's cabinet colleagues, suggest some of them suspect the only person who truly believes in the Big Society is Mr Cameron himself!

Jesse Norman

Jesse Norman

But now we know of at least one other. 'The Big Society' is also the title of a book just published by the University of Buckingham Press. Its author, Jesse Norman, also happens to be the Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire.

Mr Norman, elected to Parliament last May, is the Chairman of the All Party Group on Employee Ownership, a principle which appears to chime in with the notion of all those 'bottom-up' solutions the Prime Minister keeps talking about, in preference to what he sees as the previous Labour government's Big State 'bottom-down' approach.

And you can see how Mr Norman's enthusiasm for employee ownership chimes in with the Big Society itself, bearing in mind the example perhaps of the John Lewis Partnership. It's a highly successful retail chain which is owned by its workforce.

But how can this work in communities where those who are fortunate enough to have jobs may simply not have the time or energy to set up their own free schools or volunteer to serve society in the myriad other ways envisaged in Mr Norman's treatise?

This week on the Politics Show, we're putting it to the test, with a particular focus on what the Big Society might mean for our rural communities.

Our Environment Correspondent David Gregory will be reporting from the village of Feckenham in Worcestershire. The nearest town is Redditch six miles away, and with just one bus a week many villagers without their own transport were in danger of becoming increasingly cut off.

That was the cue for a display 'Big Society' thinking in microcosm (if that's not a contradiction in terms) even before the term had become general currency. A group of local volunteers banded together to set up their own village shop, open seven days a week. This award-winning venture has since expanded to provide a cafe, also staffed by volunteers.

And that's not the only way in which it may be seen as a Big Society 'model village'. Feckenham's busy village hall has activities every night of the week, including a cinema club, the FeckenOdeon.

But let's not kid ourselves.

It's not every town or village that has such a concentration of articulate, motivated people with time on their hands. The people at the shop point out that the voluntary principle does not come cost-free: you don't need to be a particularly large organisation to start racking-up bills for phones, administration, postage and accommodation, especially in our more sparsely-populated areas.

Remploy, who offer work for people with a wide range of disabilities, are warning that the Government is demanding they deliver value for money and must expect payment by results. Remploy say there's a danger providers will "concentrate their efforts where they can maximise their outcomes with minimum expenditure". This suggests predominantly rural areas like Worcestershire could be at a disadvantage compared with the towns and cities.

But perhaps the Biggest Question about the Big Society is whether enough people, especially younger working people or those with families, can become sufficiently engaged with the principles of voluntary action to make a difference: to give up their precious leisure time in service of the greater good.

The Prime Minister never misses an opportunity to stress that "bottom-up, not top-down" approach.

So it's perhaps appropriate that here at least is one feature of the 'New Politics' which will either succeed or be tested to destruction not in Westminster's lobbies, but here at street-level in your town or village and in mine. A novel twist on the idea of 'voting with your feet' perhaps?

From Downing Street to your street, in fact. Sounds like one for the Politics Show.

Join us at our usual time of 12 noon on BBC One on Sunday 7 November 2010.


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