Sunday, 13 February 2011

Big Society Fortnight

I've decided that this is now going to be big society fortnight(backdated to last week). It's been a such a long time since I've had so much to say on one topic and I know I'm not the only one as apparently at the Uni some big-name academics also came together to hold a debate. When I heard this I reflected that it was curious why we're all now devoting so much time to what most of us seem to beleive was just an election gimmick, but here we are and the discussion goes on....

It seems that all of us, even Dave himself, reached a consensus last week; namely that the cuts dished out to the voluntary and community sector by town halls across the country seemed to be anomolous to the aims of the 'big society' programme.

Sensing that the policy was on the verge of turning on its heels and running, to be ruthlesley pursued by the oppositions cavalry it seems the Government will this week be attempting to set a rallying point. Some of the details which have been announced featured in the Guardian over the weekend. Though I am tempted to pick it apart in minute detail I will restrict myself to commenting briefly on the main features.

Firstly there is the announcement that a £100m fund will be available to enable "charities" and "social enterprises" to "compete" for government contracts. Also available will be £200 million in loans from high street banks.

My first impression is, what's new? This is something which was being done under the last Government through programmes such as Change Up and Futurebuilders. I also wonder how the £100 million figure measures up to the cutbacks. As I have previously mentioned in my area alone £400k is expected to be shaved off the main Day Care services contract(currently provided by a nonprofit) alongside 700k or so in funding for voluntary sector organisations in the area. These figures are also per year, it is not clear in the article how many years the £100 million will be spread over. The Guardian piece does rather well in dealing with the issue of the £200 million from the banks, which it states will be on a commercial basis, and again, what's particularly new about this? There has been nothing stopping a non-profit organisation seeking finance in this way before.

A key feature of Cameron's defence of the big society has been how it embodies a philosophy of bottom-up as opposed to top-down action. Leaving aside the fact that this is quite a paradox for a policy being pushed by central government I wonder how the above funding arrangements fit with this philosophy. The reason I ask this is that the current round of local government cuts are likely to bring into question the viability of small locally based voluntary organisations as opposed to large regional or national organisations which will have more diverse funding streams. It is these small organisations which are often credited with being closer to their beneficiaries wheras larger organisations have been critiqued for becoming too buracratic and distant from their beneficiaries I also wonder how shifting the decisions over which charities to fund from democratically elected local authourities to high street banks and central government quangos is in keeping with the bottom-up philosophy?

Something which also seems to run counter to this is the whole process surrounding the 5000 'big society' workers and the establishing of what looks like a central college with what seems to be remit for deciding on a curriculum for a set of community work qualifications. All this at a time when Community Development Workers across the country are in fear of their jobs and department budgets. If this does not smack of top-down centralisation I really don't know what does!

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