England & Wales

The Big Society


The following post is an extract from a recent policy briefing on the Big Society, which can be accessed by members through the LGiU website:

It is clear that the Big Society could have the potential to positively transform localities; how communities operate, the sort of responsibilities that they have, the services that are available locally and who they are available from. If the Big Society works as intended, communities will be stronger and more capable, and the state may be able to reduce spending on local services. But in order for the Big Society to work, there are a significant number of issues and tensions that need to be addressed.

Localism and Strategic Planning

As Jonathan Carr-West argued in the LGiU’s publication on Localism and Strategic Planning, there are two competing logics at play. On one hand, Total Place or Place Based Budgeting approaches to creating savings and improving services is about unifying: it is about joining up and pooling services in a local area. On the other hand however, the Big Society approach is fragmentary and is about citizens and communities organising independently to find solutions to service delivery issues.  Whilst both of these approaches are attractive, we must question whether we can pursue them both at the same time.


Essential to the democratic process is accountability: the ability to scrutinse decisions that have been made about public money and service delivery. If public services are going to move towards delivery by citizens, communities and voluntary groups a system for holding them to account needs to be outlined. It needs to be clear how citizens, communities and voluntary groups will be accountable for services they deliver, who will hold them to account, and what the role of the Big Society will be in holding itself to account.

Motivation and Demand

Government, past and present, has assumed that putting structures, mechanisms and powers in place for communities will automatically lead to greater levels of empowerment and volunteering. But we know that this approach has not worked; the 2009 Place Survey results report that just 22% of people participate in regular volunteering and only 29% of people felt that they could influence decisions in their area. In other words, it would be naïve to presume that the affect of rolling back council services will automatically lead to communities doing more. Policy makers and practitioners are going to have to address issues around how to create demand to be involved in local civic action and what may motivate people to do this.


There is a real concern that cutting budgets and drawing back services will have an adverse impact on the voluntary and community sector and that in the future there won’t be the capacity to take on the responsibility for local service delivery. The Minister for civil society Nick Hurd has already indicated that 45 civil society partners, who receive funding through the Strategic Partners’ Programme will reduce to just 15 organisations receiving funding. In addition, local councils and communities will have to consider what skills and expertise they have and how they can be developed, so that the capabilities to take on these responsibilities are present.


For all the localist rhetoric that is coming from the Coalition, there is also central prescription in equal measure. Yes, they have outlined that they want to transfer power from central to local government and they want to have a review on the financing of local government, but they have also told councils that they shouldn’t print newspapers, when bins should be collected and most recently that councils shouldn’t buy i-pads for their local councillors. The centre will need to learn that in order for the Big Society to flourish, councils and communities need to be able to make decisions and the centre needs to accept that when it comes to localities, councils and communities really do know best.