Thursday 3 February 2011

Where next?

The story in today's papers about Liverpool pulling out of the Big Society vanguard project is an illustration of how problematic it is to promote the concept of Big Society against a background of cuts. It's worth reading the full letter from the Leader of the Council,

"Liverpool City Council has a long history of working with its local communities. Our voluntary and community sector is well established and extremely successful. They have a passion and vision for the city and for the people they serve.

You will recall that you announced Liverpool as one of four ‘Big Society’ vanguard areas last summer with Phil Redmond leading the initiative.

Later in the year, Liverpool City Council was asked to assist in this initiative around some key projects, including running a ‘parallel vanguard programme’. We took up this challenge wholeheartedly and have invested significant resources to deliver this substantial programme of activity.

When we agreed to become a Vanguard, your government promised to work with us to remove some of the problems and blockages that were preventing us from successfully delivering our Big Society programme. I have to say, the government has failed to deliver a single change that we have requested, which has severely hampered many parts of our programme.

Liverpool has been doing the "Big Society" for many years. We call it "working with our communities" and it is something we are very much committed to. We pride ourselves on our excellent working relationships with our community and voluntary sectors, and indeed have done our utmost to support these sectors - as they are crucial to the success of our city.

These organisations - run by thousands of dedicated and passionate people right across the city - play a vital role in helping build vibrant and cohesive communities. They provide hundreds of services essential to a thriving society.

But their ability to help us improve the quality of life for Liverpool residents has been seriously undermined by two government decisions. Firstly, the loss of over £100million of Area Based Grants to Liverpool has put many organisations very survival at risk. These funds, aimed at tackling deprivation, were widely utilised by the voluntary sector. Secondly, Liverpool’s extremely poor local government settlement means a huge £141million reduction in council spending over the next two years. This level of cuts will significantly impact on council services, including the funding of many of our voluntary and community groups.

How can the City Council support the Big Society and its aim to help communities do more for themselves when we will have to cut the lifeline to hundreds of these vital and worthwhile groups?

I have therefore come to the conclusion that Liverpool City Council can no longer support the "Big Society" initiative, as a direct consequence of your funding decisions.

This comes on top of the news, as reported in The Guardian, that Nat Wei is reducing his (voluntary) time commitment to the Big Society advisory role in Government, and the implosion of the Big Society Network.

All of this was predictable. If you bypass the existing structures of the third sector and try and do it all on a year zero basis you will get your fingers burnt. Who knows about community development. The established third sector bodies like the Community Alliance. Did they get pulled in to No: 10 and asked how to do it ? No. In the drive to get more volunteers, were the well established volunteer bodies like BTCV, volunteering England and CSV called in and asked to deliver it? No.

But as I said in my open letter to the PM published in The Times the concept of Big Society is important and crucial to the Government's overall policy direction. We salute the concept and want to work to make it happen. That is why many of us are so angry about cuts. They undermine and weaken the very sector that is needed to deliver the idea. Perhaps now we will see a greater emphasis on how reforming public services to empower citizens and communities is the key to a Bigger Society. The PM's instincts on the role of the sector and how it must be expanded are sound. They are genuine. But he now needs to work better with us in realising his ambitions, and rely less on the slightly flaky gimmicks and advice received so far.

Our Big Society Commission meets shortly in Liverpool to hear evidence and views. It will be fascinating

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