Thursday, 10 February 2011

Big Society, a great idea but you can't have 'owt for 'nowt'

Yesterday, was crazy,  I gave interviews to both the Evening Standard and Financial Times and had chats with three Local Authority leaders and our own Minister, Nick Hurd, all of which was pretty good going given I'm stuck in bed with a nasty chest infection.

Recent weeks have seen a rocky ride for the Big Society, so interviewers were eager to hear me call it game over for the Prime Ministers favourite philosophy, but sadly for the quick headline, its so much more complicated than that. Big Society has a great deal in common with social enterprise, not least that people struggle to know what it is, and like social enterprise it seeks to combine two truths, one that communities could and should get involved with the services they need, and two that the finances that support a progressive benevolent state should not all come from a single source. Bingo, Big Society and social enterprise. But that doesn't mean that you can work miracles without financial support, or innovate without investment.

The Government must feel disappointed, wondering why we think we can ask for special pleading when all about us is being cut and why we don't seem more satisfied by the Transition Fund, Work Programme and Big Society Bank.

The lack of appreciation could come from an overblown sense of entitlement, or it could be that these initiatives belong to less pressing times. My analysis is as follows, the Transition Fund is a £100 million available now for civil society organisations who are suffering as a result of the cuts. Super. Its aimed at front line organisations but the money they ask for can not go towards the services from which statutory investment has been withdrawn, instead the money is for consultancy to assist in restructuring and finding sustainability through an alternative model. Sensible if its only an interim payment, but tough too. The Work Programme is the one that gets me. Gone is Future Jobs Fund, which in our hands got 500 young people into jobs in social enterprise of which 72% are still in those jobs, so it worked, but hey, its not as if youth unemployment is critical, oh hang on it is. Instead we, and the young people we could help, have to wait for at least 12 months for an initiative that wraps all Government support up into a single package tendered out in large geographical, dare I say regional swathes, to bidders who needed a minimum £50 million reserve simply to pitch for the work. Enter the private sector, exit our lot. We are told we can be suppliers to those private contractors, but with a funding structure that makes payment with unprecedented delays it seems very few larger third sector organisations will be able to carry the risk let alone the small community based ones. Finally, we have the Big Society Bank which is a good thing, but I ask you, why terminate the existing form of lending, Futurebuilders, which at the time of closure was receiving £80 million of loan requests a month, loans being repaid with only a 2% default rate, before having a vehicle to replace it?

In the meantime the local authority cuts, cuts to the Regional Development Agencies and quangos and closure of programmes like Future Jobs Fund have all led to many of the organisation's they contracted with, that's our lot,  facing April 1st with projected deficits and potential closure. These are the same organisations that with time and a little investment could generate partnerships and consortia, attract alternative forms of finance and be in place to deliver Big Society.

So you see, its a mixed bag. We really do want to take up the challenge, we're not looking for handouts but contracts and we are willing to be frugal,  but we need time to adapt and in the next few weeks, for many fantastic community organisations, time will run out. You can hardly blame people for being angry, they were expecting cuts, not closure and so instead of a blue print for increased community engagement, Big Society, sadly, is starting to look like 'owt for 'nowt'.


  1. I disgree that the sector's arguments are "special pleading".

    No one is saying "please don't cut".

    Everyone IS saying "don't rip the guts out of everything we're doing."

    Do you see? It's the difference between having an appendix out vs. having your arms, legs and a kidney and a lung removed.

    Furthermore the Government has been found out when it comes to the non-money angle: No extra opportunities to influence policy (in fact we're being cut out of the loop completely), and no new constitutional settlement in favour of communities (and no, Localism doesn't even come close).

    So you see, Big Society = Big Dead Non Project.

    Tell porkies and eventually even the voluntary and community sector will kick the BJ out of you.

  2. I agree that this is not special pleading but a steer on worthwhile investment. You can not grow anything without investing in it, and we are saying invest in us and we will multiply the dividends in terms of social impact and financial return.

    I agree that we have been blanked from recent measures. I suppose Government assumed we would have nothing to add but objections. Our hope is that as the inclusion agenda is derailed by cuts they will remember us and the work we do.

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