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A new role for councils in the Big Society


The Big Society lives. For a while during the election campaign it looked as if David Cameron was quietly dropping his flagship concept but it emerged alive and well in the Queen’s Speech.

The Decentralisation and Localism Bill would give communities the powers to take over services, buy assets and influence planning.

This offers citizens an opportunity to be more involved in shaping the places in which they live and the services they use - a grassroots re-invigoration of civil society.

This is vital. The changing nature of the challenges we face, from climate change to an ageing society, means government will need to work with citizens to achieve collaborative solutions.

Of course questions remain. How can we motivate communities to take up these opportunities? How will we ensure they are properly accountable? The government will want to achieve this without reintroducing the deadening hand of the Big State with targets and bureaucracy.

We will also need to think how Big Society initiatives will interact with the formal governance and service delivery functions of local government. This is particularly important because the relationship with local government could be the key to the Big Society’s success.

Who better to catalyse the new politics than the network of more than 20,000 local councillors? As unpaid volunteers giving up more than 20 hours a week, they are the Big Society in action.

For many councillors this will require rethinking their role, seeing themselves less as Burkean representatives of the people and more as community facilitators, who inspire action and ensure accountability.

Similarly, local government will have to look hard at its processes. Too often it hampers community initiatives through over-restrictive application of rules, for example around street closures or public liability insurance.

It will have to judge when to step up and when to step out of the way.

The Big Society will emerge naturally as people take advantage of new powers. But if we are to achieve the Biggest Society, councils will be crucial. They have a peerless capacity to nurture the emergence of a citizen-led politics.

Jonathan Carr-West is head of centre for local democracy, LGiU


Readers' comments (3)

  • One of the key issues arising from the new government’s Big Society vision is the extent to which local communities will be involved in its implementation.

    How will strong local strategic partnerships (LSPs) support local community networks in providing a safety net as public spending contracts?

    Big Society thinking gives us an opportunity to build the resilience of places to future shocks. It will be the responsibility of LSPs to orchestrate and nurture this process.

    Tom Stannard, director of policy and communications, Blackburn with Darwen BC

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  • Could there be a formal relationship between community groups (whatever form they take) and scrutiny? Scrutiny has an important role in scrutinising partnerships, especially the LSP and could provide a connect between community volunteers and decision makers.

    Its frankly quite baffling that nobody is talking about scrutiny at a time when audit, inspection and targets are being dropped. Instead of re-inventing the wheel when it comes to enhancing local accountability we ought to properly resource and empower the best and most legitimate local accountability function we have. Like it or loath it scrutiny is not just the best answer, it might be the only truly viable one.

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  • Similar to the NIMBY committees which Hanan & Carswell's "The Plan" envisages to dump benefit claimants.

    This is local privatisation against the poor, the elderly, the sick and ordinary workers. It is localist fascism, beware.

    If they manage to put this through it will take a revolution to put matters in to good order.

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