The ‘Big Society’: What it means for local government

This a transcript of a presentation given on Wednesday 24th October 2012, the slides to accompany the presentation, in PDF format, can be found there.

St. James’s Forum

Riding Mill Parish Hall 

Wednesday 24th October at 7pm

The ‘Big Society’: What it means for local government

Roger Kelly and Jane Robinson – Former and current Chief Executive of Gateshead Council

But these services are coming under increasing pressure from austerity in public finances combined with the Government’s vision for ‘The Big Society’ where ‘individuals and communities have power and responsibility and use it to create better neighbourhoods and local services’. Roger Kelly and Jane Robinson ask: Is this a realistic vision? What might it mean in practice?  

Is it a realistic vision?

Well, first of all what is the vision?

The term Big Society was first adopted and promoted by David Cameron as leader of the opposition in 2008. It was included in the Conservative Party manifesto and became part of the coalition agreement. Mr Cameron has admitted that he has struggled to get across to people what he means by the term. In fact in his recent keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference –he said he had been trying for three years to explain what it meant and the “games-makers “at the Olympic Games just went ahead and did it.

He has said “You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society.” David Cameron, July 2010.

The Times defined it as “an impressive attempt to reframe the role of government and unleash entrepreneurial spirit”.

The vision is well meaning and struck a chord the positive aspects of which we should welcome.

Francis Maude recently had a further go at describing what it means

Building a Big Society is not about pouring taxpayers’ money into the voluntary sector. It is about opening up public services, localising power and enabling and encouraging an already rich tradition of social action in this country. It is about allowing communities more control over decisions that affect them and about doing things differently.”

However there are other views  – commenting on the “big society”, Archbishop Rowan Williams, who steps down in December after 10 years in his post, writes: “Introduced in the run up to the last election as a major political idea for the coming generation, [it] has suffered from a lack of definition about the means by which such ideals can be realised. Big society rhetoric is all too often heard by many therefore as aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable.”

He suggests that ministers have fuelled cynicism over the Cameron vision by failing to define what the role of citizens should be. “And if the big society is anything better than a slogan looking increasingly threadbare as we look at our society reeling under the impact of public spending cuts, then discussion on this subject has got to take on board some of those issues about what it is to be a citizen and where it is that we most deeply and helpfully acquire the resources of civic identity and dignity

The priorities are of the Big Society Policy are:

  1. To give communities more powers ( Localism and devolution)
  2. To encourage people to take an active role in their communities (volunteerism)
  3. To Transfer power for Central Government to the people
  4. To support Cooperatives, mutuals, charities  and social enterprises
  5. To Publish Government data. ( Open and transparent government)

The plans also include setting up a Big Society Bank and introducing a National Citizen Service for 16year olds– reflecting on the nostalgic success of National Service in the 40s and 50s.

If we take each of these priorities separately we will have some idea of what is proposed. This will also help inform how realistic the policy is before we get from Jane some examples of what has happened on the ground before and since the introduction of the policy.

  1. To give communities more powers ( Localism and devolution)

An example of this is allowing communities a greater role in the planning process – if people want to build (and local people agree) let them build. They now will have a greater say in neighbourhood planning – effectively allowing active local people to draft their own neighbourhood plan – subject to certain parameters.

The Free School and Academy policy is part of this, devolving powers to parents and governors on the basis that they are the best people to understand the needs of children. There is no intermediary instead in the Government’s words remove the bureaucratic control of Local Education Authorities. This also however removes the ability to coordinate – now some of the schools are LEA Schools – others independent – or state controlled.

  1. To encourage people to take an active role in their communities (volunteerism)

This has gained much publicity indeed many see this element as the Big Society –the rhetoric is about empowering individuals, communities and organisations. The government recognises that some communities are better organised and equipped than others and has funded the Community Organisers Programme. The aim is to catalyse community action by “igniting the impulse to act”. The programme will train 5000 community organisers to build capacity and empower local communities who will then be able to take advantage of the Big Society initiatives like bidding to run public services. It is evident however there is a big difference between participating in a local initiative like running a luncheon club and bidding to contract to provide a service! There is also some scepticism in the charitable and voluntary sector about the emphasis on volunteerism in a sector which has experienced significant reductions in funding. There is concern than volunteers can step in and run services thereby devaluing the skills knowledge and experience of paid professional workers – libraries for instance. There is also a fear than in the absence of any genuine enabling of communities to take up services – it is the large corporate charities and private sector which is taking on this role. The Independent reports that LSSI and American firm has set itself the target of managing libraries in eight British local authorities within the next 12 months and to capture 15% of the market within 5 years.

  1. To Transfer power for Central Government to the people

The transfer of powers from Central Government sounds good – decentralisation is what every government since Mrs Thatcher has promised – the reality has been a mixed picture – never sure whether that’s because of the politicians or the civil servants!! However this government responding to the distrust of RDAs in the South of England in particular – has abolished these agencies and sadly for us in the north east the £2 billion of annual funding. Powers on regeneration and housing have passed to the Homes and Communities Agency, tourism and economic development to the Local authorities and the LEPs. Regional policies – like the Spatial Strategy which required the region to consider and apportion house-building and development have been scrapped – each local authority to determine its own housing numbers. The term region has been removed from the government lexion, government offices have closed and staff made redundant or in our case moved to London, Manchester or Leeds. Is this a good thing – certainly not from where I am standing – but others may disagree.

  1. To support Cooperatives, mutuals, charities  and social enterprises

The government proposes that there should be less direct provision of services by local Authorities, health bodies and public bodies – opening up possibilities for social enterprises, charities, local people and the private sector. Supporting co-ops and social enterprises is with a view to them having the skills for instance to take over services and buildings provided by the local government and the state – libraries, leisure Centres, Sure start centres… This ties in to a certain extent with Volunteerism. It also seeks to break down the barriers between private and third sector. The delivery of the National Citizen Service programme – the 4 week course of young people 6000 of which have had the course so far this year. This is out for tender at the moment and Serco the private Sector provider is tendering for the contract in partnership with two charitable organisations.

The charitable sector is trying to face both ways on this policy. The see what the government wants from the and many of them see the opportunities – however they have been subject to significant cuts in funding from central and local government and some of the larger charities have had to shed large numbers of paid staff. They are now looking for other sources of funding from foundations and trusts – but these organisations will have their own priorities and charities will need to adapt and reshape their own priorities. Some will struggle to thrive and may not even survive – others will find a ways through it but the sector may well look different.

Finally on this point there is philosophical issue which the protagonists of the big society want to address in their support for charities voluntary organisations etc. It is a view in government that “civil society has disappeared”. Citizens no longer join in. the evidence they point to is membership of churches falling by a third since 1945; political parties membership from 5m – ½ million. Trades Unions from 13m to7m and the Mothers Union 538,000 – 98000 and Women’s Institutes – likewise.

On the other hand the National Council for Voluntary Organisations calculates there are nearly 900,000 organisations in Britain including the tiny local groups like this one, to the huge global organised leaders. There is a trend in the UK that shows a rise in the large scale charities, non governmental organisation and professionally run voluntary organisations. These are often single issue pressure or cause groups with what might be described as a passive membership – direct debit membership. The ten leading environmental and conservations groups in 2009 had a membership of 7m. Their existence points to the more diverse ways that citizens have continued to engage in various forms of civic participation. The total income of all charities has risen from £12billion to £50billion today – they are trusted (sadly unlike our politicians) and perceived to deliver – they should be seen as part of the mix so that we have a fuller picture of the current position rather than a black and white picture that paints the past as being somehow so much better.

  1. To Publish Government data. ( Open and transparent government)

This is a continuation of the Freedom of Information theme started by the previous government and has been proven to be beneficial and consistent with good governance. The number of requests for information at Gateshead has risen from 80 to 880 in the last 8 years and whilst many of the enquirers are newspapers and pressure groups – no one should want to go back the secrecy and covert practices of the past – the worst excesses of which have been seen at Hillsborough or on a different but equally relevant level MPs expenses.

The current government under the Big Society model takes this a little way further and has required all Public Authorities to make available information about all invoices over £500. Jane will tell you what that means for a council like Gateshead – this is likely to reduce to £200 and some will feel that it puts public bodies under the right level of scrutiny.  It is however either very expensive if they have to identify and explain each one or very mechanical and a shade obscure if it is just a print out of invoices.

Nevertheless no one can argue about open and transparent government and it is here to stay.

So that’s a run through the priorities and I will soon pass on to Jane to talk about what it means in practice. However there are four issues with it as a concept which need to be addressed and which affect the Forum’s question – is it realistic?

Firstly, how much of it is really new and how much is a repackaging of previous governments’ policies.

In the early part of the last century a concept of civic society emerged which was branded the Great Society – people playing their full role in a vibrant and bonded community. It was taken up after the second world war in the United States and advocated by no lesser being than Lynden Johnson eventually President. The Conservative Opposition policy makers would have been aware of this however chose after some market testing to brand their version “the Big Society”. So the concept is not new. Giving communities more powers isn’t new either – though that shouldn’t be a reason for not doing it. Encouraging volunteerism was one of the themes of the previous government – remember the office for the third sector? Transferring powers from central government is also a promise that has been with us for decades and the government has delivered – there is a question as to whether they are the right powers to transfer but we’ll never get full agreement on that! Supporting mutuals, social enter[prises  and charities is  a variation on a theme – but to empower them to take over services and fill the gaps left by a shrinking public sector is both adventurous, but risky and possibly perceived as cynical pragmatism in an area severely affected by cuts in funding. Finally the pursuit of open and transparent government not new but following a direction of travel that is largely support by the public. The Big Society Network – a body to support the policy; the Big Society Bank – a funding body using dormant bank accounts to support loans to social enterprises and public organisations is certainly new and the National Citizen service – a 4 week training course of young people with a bit of a hark back to national service is new and clearly enjoyed by the bulk of young people who have taken part – it is sustainable, does it duplicate as argued by some young organisations and will it make a lasting difference?

Secondly it is based upon a perception that Society in Britain is broken damaged, volunteering activity has decreased in recent years, the country needs moral and community renewal.  Is this correct and if it is not – is the vision still relevant?

In the North East in 2008 when the policy was being drawn up, there was no reason to believe that society had broken down. Crime was down for the 10th year in a row. Employment was at an all time high – unemployment in Gateshead was a 2.7% compared with 18% in 1988.  Yes, less people were going to church and less people were members of trades unions and political parties but in the estates and in the urban areas there were clear signs of healthier communities more at peace with each other It was not Utopia but it was a more confident and ambitious north east than ten years earlier. Phrases like Broken Britain and the current advertising campaign to encourage people to vote for a police and crime commissioner make those of us who work in the public sector despair. It is irresponsible, untrue and damaging to our society. It reflects more on the policy makers and the organs of the state than it does on our society – broken state not broken Britain!!

Thirdly it has become associated with the Austerity policies of the government and the Big Society has been perceived in some quarters as being an entrée into public service by the private sector and a cheap way to deliver services by using volunteers when funding has been cut or services removed by local or central government. Does this undermine the policy’s deliverability? I think the answer to this is not necessarily – there is some scepticism and it is unavoidable however the pressure on public bodies to cut, the need to look for other providers, the possibility of partnerships with the charitable and third sector are being driven by the cuts. If there is a growing capacity in the third sector to take on some of the services and if there are volunteers to help man the libraries and sure start centres – even the police stations – then fair enough. I don’t necessarily think it is the answer and I don’t think it is sustainable. Those countries where the third sector has developed to partner with local authorities to deliver services and where volunteers have played a full role in supporting services are where the public sector is valued and financed properly – Sweden and Denmark. We have too polarised a view of the public and private sector in Britain and the austerity measures introduced by the government hit the public sector the worst and are viewed as being in line with a government that on its own admission does not value the Public Sector.

Fourthly, it appears to aim to devolve power to local people bypassing the democratically elected local intermediary – local government. Would the policy have a better chance of success if Local Government was seen as more of a partner? This ties in a little with the previous question. Devolution has been to the communities and local people not to the democratically elected bodies that represent people. Local Government has over the last 40 years been denuded of if status as a bulwark against an over domineering state. The Conservative Government from 1979 and other governments since then have seen local government as a conduit of the state rather than an independent and separate part of our local democracy. In which other country would you see a central government force referendums upon local authority areas to change the system of governance from council to elected mayor – without an in-depth analysis or Royal Commission. Likewise removing Police Authorities comprising of 17 elected and independent people and replacing them with an American Model of Police Commission again without any analysis of the facts. The Big Society is not new but large elements of it are good and it is an honourable concept – building up civic society – with local government as a valued and equal partner the task would be so much simpler and better informed.

So I have set out what I think are some aspects of the Big Society and have tried to put flesh on the bones. Over now to Jane to describe:-

What might it mean in practice?

Roger has given some context to the Big Society and set out the policy and political drivers, as well as raising some questions about whether the vision is realistic. I would like to spend some time looking at what the concept of the Big Society looks like on the ground for a place like Gateshead, to consider what has happened in the past, but also, critically, what it might mean for local government in the future.

Roger has asked whether the concept of the Big Society is new and suggested that, in reality, ideas which have been packaged under the banner of the Big Society have been in existence for many years.

What probably is new is Central Government codifying a set of arguably disparate ideas under a single banner. Ironically for an administration that seeks to minimise the role of the State we have witnessed high levels of intervention and legislation (292 Bills since 2010) around a set of principles which, arguably are best addressed locally, rather than nationally.

I’ll say more about how Local Authorities are currently affected by the idea of the Big Society in a moment, but first some reflection on where we have come from…

Gateshead today has a population of around 200,000, represented by 66 locally elected councillors. There is a history of heavy industry and its subsequent decline, leaving significant levels of deprivation (43rd out of 326 local authorities). It is a diverse borough in social, economic and geographic terms; 60% rural, with pockets of affluence, as well as real deprivation. The borough is made up of clearly defined communities – Felling, Blaydon, Lamesley (Parish Council), with a long-standing recognition of importance of strong communities and pride of place – arguably underpinning requirements of the Big Society.

The Sage Gateshead and BALTIC  are often cited as having put Gateshead on the national and international map, but for local politicians their success is judged by their engagement of local communities, before national profile. Both institutions are required to work with every school in the borough and The Sage Gateshead boasts over 200,000 music making sessions (participation) and 2000 performances since it opened. Without that local pride and engagement they would be nothing more than what the Leader of the Council, Mick Henry, calls “architectural gestures”.

The idea of strong and diverse communities being at the heart of successful places is well established in Gateshead. Our approach to working with neighbourhoods, not surprisingly predates, The Big Society and the Localism Act of 2011. For the last decade we have developed our approach to neighbourhood working, with the aim of:

  • providing strong, visible and accountable leadership at all levels from neighbourhoods to the whole Borough
  • engaging communities and empower people
  • delivering efficient, joined up, high quality services which meet the specific needs of each neighbourhood.


The notion of local people determining local priorities and a shared vision for the place in which they live is an important one. Back in 2007, Gateshead worked with other partners including police, health and the voluntary sector to define a vision for the future of Gateshead. Literally, thousands of local people of all ages and backgrounds were involved in the development of Vision 2030, which set out an ambition for what Gateshead would look like in the future. The result – six Big Ideas – creative, city, global, sustainable, active and healthy and volunteers. As far as we know we were the only place in the country to place such a long-term strategic priority on volunteering, aiming to be the UK capital for volunteering by 2030.

We have made some good progress. In 2011, the Council received the Government’s Local Compact Award in recognition of the long-standing commitment to partnership working across the Council and VCS to promote volunteering and voluntary action, with a demonstrable impact on local communities. The Council has worked with Gateshead charities to develop a consortium approach to bidding for tenders called the Commissioning Exchange – organisational health checks and support is available from the Council to assist voluntary groups in winning contracts. The Council’s Community Asset Transfer policy and procedure has been improved to strengthen voluntary sector confidence and community ties, provide income generation opportunities, and meet organisations’ needs. The Volunteer Centre which brokers opportunities for volunteering has promoted hundreds of new volunteering opportunities through initiatives like Gateshead Volunteer Fair and a Supported Volunteers Programme, which enables people with a learning disability to volunteer supported by a trained volunteer buddy. The Gateshead Award receives hundreds of nominations to recognise volunteering including ‘Volunteer of the year’ and ‘Voluntary organisation of the year’.

There are other examples of the Big Society in action in Gateshead, including:

Planning for Real  – an approach which actively engages local people in planning for their area.  Back in 2003 (long before the current changes to planning), local people were given an opportunity to identify their priorities for the area. Dozens of local volunteers in Birtley worked for several weeks at over 30 locations gathering views from residents, tenants and local businesses. At the end of this exercise the overall view was that renewal /regeneration of the High Street in Birtley was the priority for the vast majority. This led to a number of changes including, new fascias for the shops on the high street and refurbishments to the Co-op building and Andale House and a major re-development of the town, soon to be on-site.

This engagement gave real impetus to the Birtley Community Partnership; formed by community volunteers from several resident and church groups. When a derelict council building became available in 2007 the partnership approached Gateshead Council with a view to them taking ownership and developing a community HUB for Birtley.

By 2009 working with the Council, the Partnership drafted a Big Lottery Fund application to the Community Buildings programme; this enabled the group to proceed with an asset transfer of Harraton Terrace. Since the Hub has opened its doors it has developed a number of services to serve the community of Birtley, including;

  • Providing a base for Northumbria Police
  • Twice weekly CAB advice and Credit Union sessions
  • Adult and Family Learning courses
  • North East Council on Addictions Women’s support group
  • Employment support project for adults with learning disabilities
  • PCT Stop Smoking drop in
  • Job search service

Another example is the Flood Warden Scheme in Blackhall Mill, which was established in 2009 as a direct result of the 2008 flooding from the River Derwent. Flood Wardens act as eyes and ears on the ground for the Environment Agency and the Council. The volunteers are included within Gateshead Council’s list of Emergency Key Contacts, meet with members of the Resilience Team and have attended multi-agency emergency planning exercises. The local knowledge held by the flood wardens is seen as invaluable as part of the overall response and safety of the local community.

Young people have also been heavily involved in Gateshead.  Back in 1999 the Youth Assembly  was established. Democratically elected, with a cabinet structure which mirrors the Council’s, the Youth Assembly links to Youth Councils in schools across Gateshead and plays an active role influencing Council policy.

Supporting and developing the principles of democracy and engagement with young people must be a real priority if the Big Society is to have a long-term impact. We are seeing the results as in May last year, a former Youth Assembly member was elected as a councillor at the tender age of 20. The changing profile of elected councillors is providing some new and interesting perspectives about how we engage citizens, for example through social media networks.

Local councillors certainly play a vital role in Gateshead as community advocates and champions, articulating and supporting community aspirations. The Local Community Fund is one initiative to support that role. Established in 2009, it provides £30k per ward which can be used flexibly to support local priorities and build local capacity. For example Deckham Clean Sweep, involving local schools and churches and Greenside social history projects. [slides – Deckham and Greenside]. Increasingly, activities that the Council can no longer afford, for example floral bedding and clean up schemes, are being supported by local groups. The Council provides advice and equipment and community groups and local businesses have given their time.

There are hundreds of examples, but what is clear is that there is no one size fits all. Different circumstances require a different response, different support.  The Local Authority plays different roles depending on local circumstances, but in many cases without any support or safety net, individuals will simply be unable or unwilling to take on what are potentially significant risks and responsibilities.

Gateshead has benefitted from a vibrant voluntary sector and a long tradition of close knit communities, but it is clear that the current challenges we face – fiscal restraint, reform of public services, demographic pressures and an uncertain economic future are resulting in huge pressures on communities and vulnerable individuals. In many ways, this is absolutely the time when we need the Big Society or at least the ideas which underpin it, to come to the fore.

As Roger referred to, one of the issues about the “brand” of the Big Society is that is has been associated so closely with austerity. I don’t think that association is helpful, but the reality is that the scale and speed of cuts in the public sector are having a huge impact; reducing funding to support the voluntary sector arguably at the very moment we need them to be expanding their role and building capacity.

With a 28% reduction in budgets since 2010, local government across the country has taken its fair share, and more, of the Government’s squeeze on public expenditure. In Gateshead, we have reduced spending by £70m in the last three years. At the same time, we are also faced with rising demands on many of services – the inexorable rise in the cost of social care which, if nothing changes, is projected to consume the totality of councils’ budgets by 2020. We are also spending more time and energy than ever on a centrally defined transparency agenda – where the objectives are sound, but the implementation heavy-handed and far from localist! On many levels, local government is facing its greatest ever financial, operational and strategic challenges. It is tough and it is going to get tougher, particularly for places like the North East.

But with challenges come opportunities, specifically opportunities to think afresh about what the role of local government is, and how it can be realised. A recent article in The Economist  applauded what it described as the Petri dish of local government, where extreme challenges were generating a creative and innovative response.

Currently, Gateshead is consulting on a range of proposals which will see communities playing a greater role in the delivery of local services and whilst funding reductions are a major driver, we hope our approach will deliver a sustainable future for those services and help build stronger communities.

For example, libraries and community centres where in some instances volunteers will be asked to play a more active role, but will be supported by the council through professional advice and training, as well as access to Council wide resources.

We are also testing other models – for example support for Bill Quay Farm working with Gateshead College to provide training and development opportunities, whilst maintaining public access; and Gateshead Central Nursery (plants, not babies!) working with Groundwork Trust – with proposals to set up a Community Interest Company.

These examples speak of a changing role of LA and relationship with local communities.  With a policy context that seeks to open up public service provision, alongside a decentralising drive to devolve powers and responsibilities away from Whitehall, local authorities have demonstrated considerable appetite and aptitude for responding to the new agenda. Councils are no longer the monolithic, top-down providers of remote, unresponsive and one-size-fits-all services sometimes caricatured in the media and, sadly by some national politicians. In fact, good local authorities (I would count Gateshead amongst them, but I’m probably biased!) are creative and innovative and have a long history of devising and implementing models of responsive, value for money services.

The Co-operative Councils Network is an initiative developed in the last few

years, which focuses on redesigning the way a council works by incorporating a co-operative ethos into its relationships with its staff, communities, service users and providers. This builds on and goes beyond the Big Society emphasis on voluntarism, the Co-operative Council approach seeks to establish a new way of working that, in the words of Oldham Council (currently developing this approach), enables “residents and service users to become active participants rather than passive recipients of public services”.

These new approaches raise issues that local authorities need to address, for example:

  • Quality, risk and accountability – how do we ensure quality and manage risk and ultimately who is accountable if things go wrong?
  • Sustainability – with reliance on individuals who are volunteering, how can we ensure activity is sustained? Example of Millennium Greens
  • Capacity of LA to support – we can’t under-estimate the resources required to build capacity and provide on-going support and contract management?
  • Perceived VFM – as a greater proportion of council funding is used to support social care, only directly benefiting a relatively small proportion of the population, will residents resent paying Council Tax, as well as being expected to volunteer to keep the streets clean?
  • Equality of provision – will more deprived communities end up with fewer services?

What is clear is that in pioneering new ways of designing and delivering local services, there will need to be a reorientation of the council’s relationships, not just with local citizens, but with partners from the public, private and voluntary sectors.

If everyone plays their part, these new relationships could help councils to achieve efficiencies and improvements, including promoting local economic growth and maximising social value. But, the reality is that if local citizens and communities want to continue benefiting from the levels of service they are accustomed to, they will have to assume a greater level of responsibility in helping determine what services look like and they may also have to become involved in the delivery of these services.

Whatever the model, as a local authority, we should focus on what is right for our local communities, but I think there are some principles we should hold on to:

  • Democratic accountability
  • Stewardship
  • Public value
  • Social justice
  • Civic entrepreneurship
  • Empowering local communities

So where does that leave the Big Society? It is a shame that brand is now seen as tainted, because the ideas are powerful and important. As Roger pointed out, much of rhetoric from Central Government either ignores or actively dismisses the role of local government, seeing the relationship being between Central Government and individuals. I think that misses an important opportunity.

Perhaps it should be less about the “Big Society” and national schemes and more about the “small society” or, rather local community. If, in the future, Local Government can play a role as broker and enabler in articulating and supporting the delivery of the ambitions of local people and places that would, in my view, be a good thing.


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