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Is Albert’s army simply the Big Society 2.0?

Is Albert’s army simply the Big Society 2.0?

🕔08.Nov 2013

Sir Albert Bore is calling the city to arms. To protect services, a new ‘citizen’s army‘ needs to step in to work alongside the Council to help provide services.

At first glance, Sir Albert’s promise to “give people more of an opportunity to make a bigger contribution to the city” appears to be a policy intended to replace publicly-funded initiatives and support structures with neighbourhood associations, charities and voluntary groups.

This certainly sounds familiar – voluntary groups replacing services, the opportunity to make a bigger contribution – is this Bore’s ‘Big Society‘?

This is exactly the problem with Sir Albert’s plan, it will be dogged by association with the ‘Big Society’ and the wider issue of cuts across city’s services. Linked to tackling the Council’s deficit or Cameron’s ill-fated pet project, Bore’s announcement will be damaged by the suggestion that he only wants to ‘devolve’ power to save money. As a result, it will appear a cynical rhetorical flourish designed to sweeten the pill of cuts.

Due to the similarity with Cameron’s flagship ‘Big Society’, Bore needs to carve a clear distinction between his policy and the neo-liberalism of the Conservatives.

The third sector and social enterprise face similar financial challenges as the Council, namely rising demand and reduced funding. These organisations are not in a position to leverage sustainable income flows from their already impoverished communities (as the Conservatives had assumed they would) and therefore have been unable to step in as anticipated.

Similarly, as people become less economically secure, potential volunteers find their time and capacity increasingly stretched by reduced local public services, changes to working and child tax credits, and insecure, low-paid employment. The result is depressed voluntary activity. In this climate, only a tiny proportion of local organisations are interested or have the scale to be involved in delivering public services.’

The voluntary sector requires a minimum amount of financial security, through funding for organisations or good standards of living for individuals, to be a truly viable alternative to the cuts, which is largely why Cameron’s Big Society stalled. Food banks being the shameful exception. Generally, there needs to be an economic floor to generate the sort of social capital in the third sector required to keep services afloat.

The Cameron administration steadfastly believes that in the absence of the state, society can and should provide for itself. In contrast, Bore should push the narrative that this is not about the state ‘getting out of the way’, but the mutualisation of volunteering with local government drawing on the themes of the co-operative movement.

If he truly wants charities, social enterprise and volunteers to pick up the slack of the local government (and create a clear dividing line between himself and Cameron neo-liberalism) he could stack the deck in their favour by (i) providing an economic floor for those charities to act through measures such as protected budgets, reduced rents and sharing assets and (ii) shifting the commissioning of services away from simple financial cost to metrics that place greater emphasis on wider social benefits so social enterprise and alike can compete against economies of scale from the private sector.

Bore is not in an enviable position – he has the pleasure of being a Labour leader overseeing some of the greatest reductions to Council services in a generation. He needs to be creative in order to avoid being seen as the harbinger of doom and shift the narrative of his tenure away from it’s current trajectory of the simple caretaker of central government cuts.

Cover Image: Spectator

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