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From cuts sticking plaster to social enterprise solution

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There was plenty of talk about Big Society at the Liberal Democrat conference last week including an interesting fringe where it was claimed that Jo Grimond, leader of the Liberal Party from 1956 - 1967 was the “inventor of Big Society”.

But many party activists were more sceptical and whilst the guiding sentiments play well with liberal philosophy, the social democrat element was concerned more about the cuts. Criticism prompted one exasperated minister put it quite succinctly: “You can have the cuts with Big Society, or you can have cuts without. It’s up to you!”

This statement confirms (if any confirmation were needed) that cutting the deficit is the cornerstone upon which the Coalition Agreement is founded. Where there was wriggle room for Cable and others to carry out some minor feather-ruffling and differences of opinion on Big Society and localism could be freely displayed, on cuts the ministerial team stood shoulder to shoulder with Conservative colleagues.

It also confirms the prevailing mindset that Big Society is seen as something of a (cheaper or even free) safety net replacing those aspects of public service that can no longer be afforded.

This was a key theme at a roundtable discussion of local authority leaders organised by PriceWaterhouse Coopers to discuss the role of ‘capable communities’. Whilst some local authorities took the opportunity to sound alarm bells about cuts to voluntary sector grants and other non-statutory preventative services, the conversation here was more upbeat.

First, for many in local authorities, Big Society is less about cost-cutting and more about co-production. Big Society is not about taking away services altogether and hoping volunteers fill the gaps but it is about service providers working more closely with residents to redesign service delivery in more effective ways.

Second, those local authorities who had been experimenting with participatory budgeting techniques saw opportunities for some grown-up conversations with local residents about the difficult decisions that lie ahead. Whilst historically participatory budgeting helped inform investment decisions, people saw no reason why the same techniques couldn’t be used for ‘participatory cutting too’.

But perhaps most crucially of all, Big Society is an opportunity to address the flip-side of the cuts coin: private sector growth. The view was expressed that if only community organisations could be supported and persuaded to become community or social enterprises it was felt that many of their activities could not only become more financially viable, but also create jobs in the process.

Such optimism says a huge amount about local authority leadership. In ippr north research published earlier this year we identified some significant challenges for community groups making that ‘enterprise leap’ but if barriers are addressed and opportunities seized then perhaps Big Society will look less like a sticking plaster and more like a solution.

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