What kind of phoenix will arise from the ashes of the big society? (We don’t think the phrase merits capitals as it’s not really a coherent programme, just a loose idea.) As a government theme it lasted about two and a half years. It was pretty well pronounced dead by a number of national charities at the end of 2012, as it became clear that the voluntary sector was declining alongside the public sector, rather than growing to take up the slack. Donations had declined and a number of charities were collapsing. Arguably the original idea was not, or shouldn’t have been, mainly about the big charities to start with, but about the majority of the voluntary sector – the small, locally autonomous community groups. But these have declined as well, as local authority cuts have decimated small grants, community work support, community centres, libraries and other facilities on which the groups depended.
The big society theme does have a legacy: the Community Organisers scheme run by Locality; legislation encouraging communities to try to guide the siting of local building development (‘neighbourhood plans’) and to take over local public services and amenities; and Big Society Capital, the bank created from dormant accounts to invest in social enterprises. ‘Invest’ is the operative word. Community organisations which can’t, or don’t want to, operate as businesses aren’t in the running.
In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where the big society never established a serious foothold, community development (CD) has gained increased vigour as it has striven to adapt to the additional pressures of austerity. CD also struggles on in England, despite being decimated by the Coalition government: it is maintained by some local authorities, voluntary organisations and other bodies which realise that community input and local services stand or fall together, not in competition. ‘Asset based’ CD is gaining some ground, and many rural areas are still benefiting from the surge in Community Led Planning over the previous decade, a programme led by Action for Communities in Rural England. There remains wide interest in community empowerment and engagement, and many local government officers, along with other service providers, remain personally committed to finding effective ways of working with communities. But it is disheartening, when you have spent the day working with an officer on how to get better community engagement, to be told that their role is about to be made redundant.
The reorganised health service recognises the necessity for community involvement but hasn’t yet found an effective way to integrate it into policy. The health agencies can’t succeed without a massive shift of care from institutions to community settings. And the Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal shows that an absence of community voice is literally fatal – allegedly over 1,000 preventable deaths at the hospital because individual complaints were not taken seriously. Public services necessarily have to be delivered by specialist expertise, but inspectorates and local government alone are not enough to ensure accountability to, and collaboration with, users. It needs a system of flexible, resident-led, cross-sector and cross-issue neighbourhood partnerships to join up professional services and living communities. The big society’s neighbourhood planning groups are too limited in scope and powers, but could be a foothold for a more comprehensive vision. We’ve tried to outline such a vision in Rethinking community practice.