Big Society

Big Society

What is the Big Society?

'Big Society' is the vision promoted by David Cameron during and after the 2010 General Election campaign.

The Big Society is not a policy programme in the traditional sense.  It's more like an outcome, or category of outcomes, that will be assessed at some future time according to the successful - or otherwise - implementation of three strands outlined by the Prime Minister on 19 July 2010:

  1. a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social action, or 'what we can do for each other'
  2. public service reform - getting rid of centralised bureaucracy that wastes money and undermines morale, and open up public services to new providers like charities, social enterprises and private companies, or 'what the government can do for us'
  3. community empowerment - neighbourhoods taking charge of their own destiny, who feel if they club together and get involved they can shape the world around them, or 'what we can do for ourselves'

A wide range of organisations and individuals have taken part in the discussion and debate around what 'Big Society' means, what it might look like in practice and how it might be delivered.

    Big Society and public spending cuts

    Arguably the greatest challenge faced by the government around Big Society is to convince people that it can be established and developed when the government is simutaneously making big cuts in its spending on local government and public services.

     It has been widely argued that government cuts to it annual local government grants, the 'finance settlement', have disproportionately targeted poorer local authority areas that have a relatively higher dependence on the local public sector for income and employment.

     Some local authorities had previously used specific central government grants such as Area Based Grant, Performance Reward Grant and Working Neighbourhoods Fund to replace significant elements of mainstream civil society grants programmes, particularly for local support and development organisations.

    As these funding streams havebeen withdrawn by central government, many local authorities have simply passed on the reductions to local voluntary and community organisations.

    The new Best Value Statutory Guidance sets out "reasonable expectations" of the way authorities should work with voluntary and community groups and small businesses when facing difficult funding decisions, particularly requiring local councils not to cut their local voluntary and community sector disproportionately.


    The overarching policy by which the government intends to see Big Society delivered is 'localism'.

    Although there is no universally accepted definition of localism, it is widely understood as meaning the devolution of decision making power to the most local level at which it can operate. In matters of national policy such power will remain with central government, but wherever possible it should be given to regions, local authority areas, neighbourhoods and communities and even individuals.

    Although most of the rhetoric has been around local geographical areas and neighbourhoods, or communities of place, reference has been made to communities of identity, interest, need etc., or what Greg Clark, Minister for Decentralisation, has called "causal" or "virtual" communities.

    Fundamental to the government's policy agenda is the Localism Bill, announced in the Queen's Speech and introduced by Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in December, which is now in its Committee Stage in the House of Lords.
    This Bill is intended to
    deliver new powers for councils - a transfer of power from Whitehall will free councils to act in the best interests of their area through, among other measures, a 'general power of competence'. There will be new directly elected mayors in the 12 major English cities and any others who want one
    deliver new rights for local people and communities - local people and communities' will have real power in their areas through a new right to challenge service delivery, a right to buy community assets such as libraries, pubs and shops and a right to veto excessive council tax rises. Minister for decentralisation Greg Clark has given assurances that the government's definition of communities is not limited to communities 'of place' but includes what he calls 'virtual' and 'causal' communities - those non-geographic communities of identity, of need, of interest with which we're very familiar.
    reform planning - restore democratic and local control over planning; neighbourhood plans will become the new building blocks of the planning system where communities have the power to grant planning permission if a local majority are in favour
    make housing fairer and more democratic - return decision-making powers on housing to local councils and communities; put councils in charge of allocation and tenure of social housing, giving councils the flexibility to use their social housing stock to the maximum effect and reduce waiting lists. The Tenant Services Authority will be abolished but its vital economic regulation functions will be preserved
    create incentives for economic growth - give local government a stronger financial stake in the local economy, so it is more entrepreneurial and attracts local business by allowing local authorities to grant discretionary business rate discounts; making small business tax breaks easier to take advantage of; giving affected businesses a greater say in rate supplements.

    Central to the government's localism agenda is the Localism Bill, announced in the Queen's Speech and introduced by Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in December 2011.

    In response to the Localism Bill, NAVCA and our partner organisations have developed the Real Power for Communities campaign, to champion the proposed new rights of local communities and ensure that the localisation of powers doesn't stop at local authority level.

    Big Society initiatives

    The government has developed and launched a wide range of initiatives relating to Big Society.

    Some have to do with philanthropy and giving, and with ways of financing new and existing charities, voluntary and community groups, social enterprises and mutuals.

    Big Society Capital (originally known as the Big Society Bank) has been designed to provide equity and loan capital to social enterprise funds and other intermediaries, to champion social investment and to be self-sustaining after five years. It includes within its structure a charitable foundation to receive donated funds for distribution to organisations who support its mission.

    Others are concerned with encouraging volunteering and social action in communities:

    Still other are concerned with 'barrier busting', removing 'red tape' obstacles to local decision making and developing ways for people to become more involved in local decision making:

    Big Society Survey

    As the Government's plans for the Big Society began to take shape, NAVCA surveyed our members to gauge their understanding of the idea, and their expectations and reservations about the proposals.


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