The Independent View: The public does support the Big Society

David Cameron’s “re-launch” of the Big Society last week didn’t generate the revival of enthusiasm for the scheme that some had hoped for. Many people still claim not to understand the term “Big Society”, with critics continuing to suggest it’s little more than PR spin for budget cuts.

With the rise of faith-based organisations taking ownership of community services, and in light of Evan Harris’ warning about “proselytising on the public purse”, it’s clear that non-discriminatory, non-partisan, non-denominational and fair services are needed, both to support the more vulnerable members of the community, and to compensate for local council spending cuts.

At the heart of negative perceptions of the Big Society and its ability to succeed, is a sense of intangibility; people find it hard to relate the values embodied by the Big Society to real world action. However, you might be surprised to learn that removing the “Big Society” label from the overarching principles makes them much more accessible to the wider public, and in fact makes people far more eager to engage in “Big Society” activities.

Our Connecting Communities Report found that the majority of people believe that communities should have more power, and encouragement from both local and central government, to take control of local services. Almost half (48%) of the 2,000 people we spoke to said that they believe social enterprises, individuals and charities should have the freedom to run public services. Our research, in partnership with YouGov, shows clear support for the principles which underpin the Big Society agenda; but if you asked a member of the public if they associated these beliefs with the Big Society initiative, I doubt they’d make the connection.

The challenge, then, is not a lack of support for the idea, but helping people understand how the Big Society progresses from soapboxes and press conferences to the real world. How do central organisations turn good intentions and ambitions into practice, and empower communities to take action?

At a grass roots level, the Lib Dems have always been a party which supports and encourages local communities. The time has come for figures like Evan Harris to not only champion strict guidelines, but to provide tangible support for groups who want to become more involved with their local area but perhaps lack the organisational knowledge to get activity off the ground.

Our research highlighted that not knowing people and groups within the area is a barrier to becoming more involved in the local community, and we’ve seen how a common platform to help enthusiastic community champions connect and share information can support the shift from theoretical debate to practice.

The Streetlife pilot scheme in Wandsworth demonstrated that by giving motivated members of the community a place to suggest action, overwhelming support can be generated for initiatives to take control of local services and help neighbours. For example, a library in one of the most deprived areas of the borough, threatened with closure due to council cuts, has been saved as a result of local residents campaigning and volunteering their time to keep it open. We’ve seen Streetlife members arrange teams of residents to help maintain local parks and community gardens, and individuals using the site to appeal directly to council representatives, to ensure that their needs are better represented in local authority decision-making.

Access to a local social network has enabled members of the community to put into practice some of the values of the Big Society; sites like Streetlife offer a convenient place to find likeminded individuals, pool skills, time and resources, and form connections online that can make a difference in the real world.

It’s time to stop posturing about the Big Society and its potential.

The best way to help the public understand the concept is to demonstrate it in action, by providing support and opportunities for local people to get stuck in and make things happen.

Matt Boyes is Founder & CEO of, the first UK-wide local social network, which aims to help people get the most out of where they live by connecting and sharing information with neighbours, councils, community groups and businesses.

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.


  • Simon Hebditch 6th Jun '11 - 10:54am

    Not only do we need to find and build connections between communities but also the Lib Dems need to articulate the democratis theories underlying the concepts of ” participation”, “active citizenship”, “power to the people” etc. The forthcoming Social Liberal Forum conference will give us an opportunity to take the discussion forward. There are a whole range of issues with which we need to grapple. If power is to be exercised at a neighbourhood level, we will have to recognise that different communities will have different answers to problems they face. How do we ensure that there is some form of national standard, say in social care provision, under which local communities cannot decide to fall? If such a national standard exists doesn’t this make a mockery of local decision making?

    We often hear criticisms of postcode lotteries where peoples’ experiences of services will be very different dependent on the priorities of those local communities. Strict localism would prioritise local decision making and we would have to accept that different parts of the country had varied levels of service provision and entitlements. Is that what we want to see? All this emphasises the central importance of local government, at whatever level, as local authorities are currently the only institutions which can claim any sort of democratic legitimacy locally – despite the low turn outs in many local elections. The Lib Dems must be much clearer about the architecture of local democratic institutions.

    The pure concept of a Big Society where people are more involved in their own communities and exercising some sort of power over their environment is no bad thing – and it can help focus the debate. However, we cannot overlook the fact that the idea has been launched at a time when public expenditure cuts are rife and charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations are not at their most resilient, and to be frank it is those community based organisations which will be the driving force of greater participation.

  • I like the Big Society in the way that I like motherhood and apple pie. It’s not as if many people will stand up and say that they don’t like the principles, but there is a world of difference bewteen that and reifying the thing in any meaningful way. I make three observations.

    1) Litigation and the compensation culture is a massive problem that Big Society advocates overlook. Locally we have a huge problem with no-win-no-fee litigation and spiralling insurance costs. Sport clubs (one of which I used to run) have been massively hit. A local playground closed recently, largely because of underwriting problems. I guess that local ‘Big Society Trustees’ would run into very significant legal problems.

    2) In places where there is (say) a well-established church, a WI and so on, the Big Society works well. This, of course, is not to say that civil society only exists in the leafy suberbs only. Rather to say that what works in the leafy suberbs might not be easily replicated.

    3) The Big Society as Cameron presents it at least seems to make some very cosy assumptions about consensus within communities. An example. A group of kids often, in good weather, gathers on a local street corner. As far as I can see they are not doing anything wrong. The police, within about an hour come along to move them on and they do that because the man at number 6 rings them up to complain. Now for me, the man at number 6 is wrong, and I can not agree with his prioritisation of policing. And I have told him as much. But how far do we take this? I would love to see parking rules enforced on school-run mums who clog up the local roads, but other members of the local big society will fight that to the death. It doesn’t neatly reconcile.

  • The public doesn’t support the big society. The big society is basically volunteering. It’s Mrs Thatcher’s Victorian values/Gladstoniam Liberalism, that even Gladstone had left behind. It’s the nostalgia of John Major for a past that never was. It’s the ghost of friendly societies instead of state pensions, of alms houses instead of council houses, of philanthropy instead of democracy.

    Lets go back to the time when it was common to label every problem as “society’s fault” and Mrs T pointed out there is no such thing as society, just a collection of individuals. Now I loathe Thatcher but on this she was right.
    Camerons answer to the same question was to say there is a society – it’s just not the same as the state.

    So lets look at the real example – the “saved” library – so instead of everyone paying a fair contribution via local taxes, now a few people take on the burden of running the service. Great news for those who don’t use the service and don’t have to pay. Ok news for those who use the service – but are now left at the whim of volunteers. But how many people will volunteera nd how many will be left in 5 years time ?

    There was a very good reason why state run services became popular – it’s because the big society/volunteer model was flawed.

    The big society is not about empowerment or localism. We have lcoal government for that.

    Of course people are going toa nswer a bland hyperthetical question with a yes – does that mean they want the armed forces put out to tender or rely on a volunteer RAF ? Oh actaully, that would be a good example, lets scrap trident and only get a replacement if it’s paid for by public subscription. We could even let ITV do a telethon – bombs in need.

  • @Duncan

    1) The government is taking steps against the culture of litigation.
    2) There are very active church groups in urban areas.
    3) I’ve never seen the police move a group of children along, whether they’re causing trouble or not.

  • Charles –

    1) Labour also took steps. Until someone reigns in the no-win-no-fee ltigation class they will continue to hold good people to ransom. We urgently need severe penalties on lawyers and litigants.

    2) I’m sure that there are active groups all over the country. What I am saying is that it is my view tha there is a good Big Society in the leafy parts of west Oxfordshire or the leafy parts of Sheffield. I suspect it will be harder to replicate in other places.

    3) Good for you.

  • Ed Shepherd 6th Jun '11 - 9:31pm

    So what has happened to the paid library staff who used to run the library cited in the article? Are they now unemployed and facing the humiliation claiming subsistence-level benefits? Why should local people have to do for free a job that was previously salaried? What contracts do the library volunteers have? Are they supposed to run the library until they “retire” from their unpaid work? Should they not get at least minimum wage and NI credits? Why should some people have to work for free to provide services whilst other people (MPs for instance) get paid handsomely for working? Why should anyone have to work for free? Why can we afford wars but not libraries? Big Society = poor people having to work for free whilst the wealthy continue to be paid generously?

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Jun '11 - 1:02pm

    “Big Society” is such a vague concept that people are just using it to mean what they want it to mean, sometimes to be positive, sometimes to be negative. A good illustration of this is the way local government fits into it, as Geoffrey Payne notes. In some cases, local government is seen to be part of “Big Society”, in others it is part of “Big State” which “Big Society” is supposed to be opposed to. Personally I do see local government, when run by ordinary people serving as councillors, as a good example of the sort of “get together and do things” attitude which I suppose “Big Society” when used positively is meant to be. When local government is put into the hands of executive mayors – which the Tories urged on by Big Bubble are eager for – then it is less so.

    Mostly when I hear Tories going on about “Big Society” I think “clueless toffs, who mean well, but don’t get it”. What they cannot see, although if they had any critical ability it is staring them in the face, is that it is the policies THEY have pursued over the past three decades, the way they have changed society, which has destroyed the sort of “get together and do things” attitude, in particular in the poorer parts. So to me, the Tories are like a bunch of people who, having smashed something up, then moan about it not being there.

    The dog-eat-dog mentality which the Tories have pursued, the idea that the only thing that motivates people is the love of money on one side, and the fear of destitution on the other, is at direct odds with the idea in “Big Society” that people will do things on a voluntary basis and such thins will be done well. Why are there certain things which the Tories tell us can only be done by people who are very handsomely paid for it and they really must be paid millions otherwise the way they will be done is rubbish, and other things where they insist volunteers will do a good job and no-one needs to be paid much at all to get the job well done? The Tory idea that we must all be super-efficient and competitive in our working lives directly contradicts the idea that we can leisurely spend our time doing voluntary work. One of the things that a volunteer activity society needs is a feeling of stability and security which means people feel free not to have to fight for their careers dog-east-dog. It is that sort of society which the Tories have smashed up in the name of efficiency. From so many people now I hear that life is nothing but work work, and them collapse into sleep (or maybe drugs or sex or mindless entertainment to take your mind off it) to be ready for more work and work the next day. Where does the volunteering of “Big Society” fit into that? Being first on the redundancy list because instead of pushing your career you knocked off at 5pmn sharp to go out and be a good community person in the evening, I think. The super-wealthy CANNOT see this because they are CLUELESS about life as ordinary people live it. They in their super-rich little enclaves may feel free enough to be able to form little clubs and societies, and then they crow about it and wonder why the chavs can’t do likewise.

    Well now, many of the things that used to bring working class people together to do things in a “Big Society” sort of way have gone or at least very much dwindled: trade unions and working men’s clubs, heavy industry, formal religion, council housing and tenants associations. Much else that is small scale swept away by the increasing dominance of the big corporations in our society – think of the way small building societies have gone, as another example, the building societies owed their origin to a “Big Society” mentality, but they have been gobbled up by faceless banks. This has all been cheered on by the Tories in the name of “efficiency”. To me there is something VERY two-faced about the way Tory types and their “libertarian” cousins will go on and on about the enervating effects of state provision of services, but say nothing about the way big corporation provision of services and necessities acts likewise.

    We Liberals need to be a little careful too, as some of the changes in society we have encouraged have destroyed the communitarian attitudes which used to lead to “Big Society” getting together. The communitarian attitude did depend on a society where “everyone knew each other” and shared common cultural assumptions, and even where everyone “knew their place” and fitted into their allotted roles – the men at the front, the women making tea and sandwiches behind, as an example. We have talked about “community politics” but we are a little afraid to admit that works best in closed communities and may go along with an intolerant attitudes to outsiders and anyone who does not fit into the conventions.

  • Ed Shepherd 8th Jun '11 - 3:29pm

    Another insightful comment by Matthew Huntach (I will spell his name correctly this time). He seems to be one of the few people commenting on LDV who has an understanding of the difficulties that most people now face in the workplace and outside it.

  • Ed Shepherd 8th Jun '11 - 3:30pm

    Sorry, I meant Matthew Huntbach. My eyesight is very poor!

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