Despite ministers’ rhetoric to the contrary, it was also going to be a job of work to create a flourishing civil society amid unprecedented cuts to public spending. The Big Society, as David Cameron has called his three-pronged drive to boost volunteering and philanthropy, decentralise and diversify public services, and empower communities, does not depend on funding to thrive - but savage spending cuts and a consequent loss in capacity in the very organisations that should be building the Big Society makes its success look all the more unlikely.
The Big Society has become subsumed by the cuts
As LGC reveals today, the first six months of Liverpool’s Big Society “vanguard” presents a petrie dish of all that is improbable in Mr Cameron’s vision. Speaking to LGC six months after the prime minister launched the four Big Society vanguard’s in Liverpool, Phil Redmond, the creator of TV shows Brookside and Grange Hill, who was appointed as the “champion” of the Liverpool vanguard, says the project has made little progress over the first six months and has been “subsumed” by the cuts in the spending review.
His concerns are backed up by Liverpool City Council leader Joe Anderson (Lab), who is trying to balance a budget stripped of £141m over the next two years. He says the scale of cuts to central government grants could see the vanguard project fall by the wayside altogether.
Spending cuts trauma
Mr Redmond says the work he had been charged with in leading the vanguard to boost volunteering across the city and launch a fund to stimulate cultural activities has been put on hold while National Museums Liverpool (NML), which he chairs, deals with its own round of cuts. He says another plan to tackle digital exclusion in poorer neighbourhoods has been dropped.
Crucially, Mr Redmond says he warned the prime minister right at the outset that cuts could undermine the Big Society agenda. In an email to DCLG, obtained by the website WhatDoTheyKnow.com , Mr Redmond said he had asked the prime minister to protect the NML and Mersey Fire & Rescue (MFR) - the two key institutions he identified to lead his Big Society strategy- from spending cuts.
“[I told Mr Cameron that] while we accept our responsibility to share the pain it seems counterproductive to try and achieve a significant step change in what I think is now a genuinely shared [Big Society] vision, by reducing the capacity of two of the key organisations that can deliver that vision both for Merseyside and as an exportable model … I fear that both organisations will, inevitably, have to cut back to the core activity and shed the people and resources that have started to make the real gains,” he wrote in the email, dated July 23, four days after the launch of the vanguards. He added: “The PM took the point.”
They turn up wanting to have a big conversation but it turns into a big lecture
Mr Cameron may have taken the point, but he didn’t act on it: NML had its budget cut by 15% in the spending review, with some venues now set for closure, while MFR was hit with a £8.5m cut and could be forced to lay off 10% of its fire fighters.
It is those cuts, and others, that have now undermined the vanguard, Mr Redmond says. Although he says he still believes in the principle of the Big Society, “with hindsight” he says Mr Cameron should have left off launching the vanguards until later this year, after the cuts had been put in place. “The Big Society has become subsumed by the cuts,” he says.
“I went along with [the launch of the vanguard] because I thought it would be a good way of getting things going, but it’s been impossible to get any traction because of the cuts - everyone is dealing with post spending review trauma,” he says.
Big trouble for big vision
Mr Redmond’s admission that the government’s deficit reduction programme is directly undermining the Big Society comes a week after Philip Blond, director of thinktank ResPublica, and a key exponent of the Big Society idea, warned that the “drive for cuts and deficit reduction was “running too fast” for civil society to create the conditions for the Big Society to flourish.
A few weeks earlier, David Robinson, founder of charity Community Links (described by Mr Cameron as “one of Britain’s most inspiring community organisations”) wrote an open letter to the prime minister warning that the massive spending cuts will wipe out vital voluntary groups. “Forcing an unsustainable pace on a barrage of uncoordinated cuts that hit the poorest hard is not an act of God. Why let it be your Katrina?” he wrote.
The Times reported last week that Steve Hilton, the prime minister’s director of strategy and another key proponent of the Big Society (he even wears a “Big Society, not big government” t-shirt) has held crisis talks over the direction of the policy amid real concerns the agenda is being “drowned out” by the clamour over spending cuts.
We’ve already got community organisers - they may not fit their model they’ve got from America - but they’re here
All of this poses a real problem for Mr Cameron and his team, not least because the Big Society agenda is meant to be the government’s antidote to the bleak narrative of deficit reduction and austerity - it is meant to counter the notion that the coalition is one trick pony, concerned only with balancing the books.
LGC understands that Mr Hilton was pressing for the government to make “a big show” of the first six months of the vanguards, but when the lack of progress across the four areas became apparent, the anniversary last month passed without mention.
Whitehall still knows best
Mr Redmond says part of the problem with the Big Society agenda is that Mr Cameron and his team were simply in “too much of a hurry” to launch the programme. He says the vanguard came about after a “couple of telephone conversations and a teleconference”, with the substance of the proposal worked through in subsequent months.
Embarassingly for the government, he says this subsequent process was largely “top-down” and driven by the Department for Communities & Local Government and the Government Office for the North West.
Indeed, correspondence between DCLG and Mr Redmond, obtained by WhatDoTheyKnow.com, shows DCLG officials asking Mr Redmond to agree on a proposed “script” for what the Liverpool vanguard was about.
“We are starting to get queries about what the vanguards propose to do. It would be helpful to have an agreed script so we are all saying the same thing,” a DCLG official said in an email to Mr Redmond, dated 21 July, two days after the launch.
A subsequent letter from the Government Office for the North West to Mr Redmond, dated 27 September, set out in detail further plans for the Big Society vanguard, which Mr Redmond now says was “a lot of stuff that I wasn’t interested in”.
This was despite communities secretary Eric Pickles maintaining that that the vanguards were about “turning government upside down”. “Instead of imposing top-down diktats from Whitehall, we are asking people to tell us what they want to do to improve their lives,” Mr Pickles said last July.
Mr Cameron said the vanguard’s would be the “great training grounds” for “a whole new approach to government and governing”, with Whitehall asking “what is it that we’re doing that’s stopping you from doing what you want to do?”
The big lecture
But Mr Redmond says this was not the case and he had been reminded instead of the last Labour government. “It reminds me of 1997. They’ve been in too much of a hurry. It’s all about ‘we want to change the world’, not ‘how do you want us to change the world?’” he says. “They turn up wanting to have a big conversation but it turns into a big lecture - telling us this is what you do and this is how you do it. We don’t need that”.
We had absolutely nothing to do with it. All they did was speak to Phil Redmond.
Cllr Joe Anderson
Mr Redmond says he wanted the vanguard to be about facilitating the existing work of community groups in Liverpool, with support and a small amount of funding, but DCLG was keen to see new initiatives, including the introduction of new community organisers as part of Mr Cameron’s plan to create a “neighbourhood army” of 5,000 community organisers around the country.
“We’ve already got community organisers - they may not fit their model they’ve got from America - but they’re here. We need to facilitate what’s there already. [The Big Society agenda] is a bit like ballroom dancing - millions are already doing it but it’s under the radar because everyone’s focused on Strictly [Come Dancing],” he says.
And despite all ministers’ talk about breaking down bureaucratic barriers to enable the Big Society to flourish, Mr Redmond says the vanguard has yet to identify any major barriers that needed to be “busted” by Whitehall and that its main tangible achievement to date was simply connecting “The People’s Republic of Liverpool with Tory HQ”.
“A Tory PM comes to Liverpool and says we’ve got this great idea to get everyone more involved. I’m not going to talk that down - it is and remains a good idea. The problem is two days later everyone defaults back to their normal setting,” he says.
Mr Redmond says part of the problem has been that Mr Cameron and his team did not engage Liverpool City Council before launching the vanguard. In the three other vanguard areas - Eden Valley in Cumbria, Sutton in London and Windsor & Maidenhead in Buckinghamshire- the local councils have all been directly involved. Indeed, in Windsor & Maidenhead and Sutton the vanguards are led by the council leaders.
We are now trying to work out if the vanguard is at all compatible with the kind of cuts we are being asked to make
But Cllr Anderson (Lab) says the council was shut out of the Liverpool vanguard. “We had absolutely nothing to do with it. All they did was speak to Phil Redmond. They didn’t have the courtesy to invite the council to be involved at all and then when they arrived in Liverpool to launch it I had to sit in the audience in my own city. It was a disgrace,” he says.
After writing to ministers in September asking to be involved, Cllr Anderson says the council is now working with partners, through Liverpool First, the local strategic partnership , on place-based budgeting and several other community-based projects under the Big Society banner.
Big Society on the rocks
But on Merseyside, balancing the books is the only game in town right now and Cllr Anderson says with the council having to find £91m in cuts by April - out of the £141m in reductions over the next two years - he is unsure if the Big Society vanguard has a future.
Last week the council announced it would axe around 1,500 staff and Cllr Anderson said a further 300-500 jobs could go in the voluntary and community sector. “To be frank, we are now trying to work out if the vanguard is at all compatible with the kind of cuts we are being asked to make,” he says.
It would be bad for the city to give [the vangaurd] up
Mr Redmond says he understands the challenges faced by the council and says it’s inevitable that cuts will be passed onto the community groups that are meant to be building the Big Society: “They’re forced, by the spending review, to choose between cuts to their own services and redundancies, or cuts to third parties. Now if the choice is between someone you’ve sat across the desk from for seven years [and a third party] you know what decision they’re going to take - even if that’s not the best one in the long run for the city. It’s a really difficult position.”
But despite the challenges, Mr Redmond says it would be “daft” for the council to pull out of the vanguard altogether. “What I’ve always said is it puts the city in prime position to get what you need. You have the vanguard badge and that gives you the chance to get some things moving. It would be bad for the city to give that up,” he said.
Over to you then, Mr Cameron.
UPDATE: 3/2/2011 Liverpool City Council has now withdrawn from the Big Society vanguard. Council leader Joe Anderson wrote to prime minister David Cameron saying the council could no longer continue with the initiative as a “direct consequence” of the spending cuts imposed on the council in the local government finance settlement (see story here). Cllr Anderson’s letter to the prime minister is attached below.