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Big Society: What’s behind the rhetoric?

Posted on the 29 October, 2010 at 10:10 am Written by in Policy Briefings

Big Society: What’s behind the rhetoric?

There has been much discussion about the ‘Big Society’, and whilst we await further information, it is important to analyse what the Government has stated so far. The Government recently published ‘Building the Big Society’ which aims to put more power and opportunity into people’s hands.

The key themes set out in this document are:

  • Transferring power from central to local government and communities
  • Supporting and expanding the voluntary and community sector
  • Making Government more transparent

Whilst the key themes may appear as rhetoric that many have heard before, the Coalition Government has outlined key policy initiatives to help deliver this ambitious agenda. This is at a time when public finances remain constrained and will require the sector to work in innovative ways to deliver this agenda. The implementation of these policies over the coming months and years will have a significant impact on the voluntary and community sector. Therefore, a clear grasp of the concept and ideas is essential to ensure Southwark is well placed to take full advantage of the Government’s aim of a better equilibrium between state and citizen.

Key Policy Initiatives:

  • Simplify process to set up and run charities, co-ops, mutuals and social enterprises. A Cabinet Office/Business, Innovation and Skills taskforce is to be established to explore options
  • Creating a ‘Big Society Bank’ that will use funds from dormant bank accounts to help set up and support charities, neighbourhood groups, social enterprises and other nongovernmental bodies.
  • Planning a national ‘Big Society Day’ to encourage volunteering and involvement in social action, which will be a key element in civil service staff appraisals
  • Giving communities a greater say over their local planning system and saving local services, such as post offices and pubs
  • Creating a new generation of community organisers that will be trained to support the establishment of neighbourhood groups and introducing measures to encourage giving and philanthropy
  • Piloting a new National Citizen Service which aims to give 16 year olds the chance to develop the skills needed to be active and responsible citizens, mix with people from different backgrounds, and start getting involved in their communities
  • Increasing access to government-held data through a ‘new right to data’ for citizens to ensure Government data is published. The Police will be obliged to publish monthly crime statistics
  • Extending powers for local government by giving a general power of competence to local councils and conducting a comprehensive review of local government finance in order to help remove restrictions that limit the work of local councils

Key policy areas for consideration

  • CAS supports transferring decision making powers from central government to a local level, which is a key component of the Big Society agenda. This is a real opportunity not to only reduce the local democratic deficit but also to ensure local people help shape the area they live in. This is only possible through good partnership working between the local authority and the sector, which actively engage with all communities within the borough. Community Action Southwark has been working with the local authority to implement effective Compact compliant working arrangements to enable better partnership working procedures.

  • Many voluntary sector organisations are currently involved in the delivery of public services, and further support to do so can be viewed positively. It is important that end users of public services are involved in the design process to ensure their needs are met. The sector in Southwark is ideally placed to engage with local communities and support such initiatives, whether through mutuals, co-operatives, individuals or charities themselves. However, delivering public services is only one of the many functions carried out by the sector. Any organisations wanting to take on more services or provide advocacy to mutuals and co-operatives should be supported and resourced appropriately. As the implementation of the Big Society agenda unfolds we expect funding arrangements to become clearer and encourage all members to closely follow future announcements.

  • At the heart of the Big Society agenda is strengthening the sector, which includes encouraging more volunteer activity. Here in Southwark, it is estimated that volunteering activities in the borough are worth £26 million. Initiatives such as Big Society Day provide an opportunity for the sector, over 1500 organisations strong, to highlight the benefits of volunteering and show case their work. This could provide an opportunity to attract potential funding, including companies in the private sector, by highlighting the social action that occurs within the borough. Organisations looking to recruit volunteers should contact Volunteer Centre Southwark tel: 020 7703 4205 website: www.volunteercentres.org.uk

Next Steps

On 19 July, David Cameron announced Big Society community projects would be established in four parts of the UK – Liverpool; Eden Valley, Cumbria; Windsor and Maidenhead; and the London borough of Sutton.

The development and implementation of these projects will be monitored closely and findings disseminated to CAS members in due course.

To join in the discussion on the Big Society, please visit the Southwark Forum Project page at http://casouthwark.basecamphq.com.

Community Action Southwark teams and membership services available:

  • Policy and Participation team – advocacy and structure for representation as well as information and updates on policy developments.
  • Community Development team – support to grassroots community groups and individuals.
  • Capacity Building team – training and support concerning sustainable funding.
  • Operations and ICT team – providing resources to enable effective service delivery.


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