Big Society 'falling apart' after Liverpool setback

4 Feb 11
The coalition government’s ‘Big Society’ plans were dealt a significant blow yesterday after key figures in one of its pilot areas washed their hands of the initiative.

By David Williams

4 February 2011

The coalition government’s ‘Big Society’ plans were dealt a significant blow yesterday after key figures in one of its pilot areas washed their hands of the initiative.

Liverpool City Council leader Joe Anderson said reductions to the city’s annual government grants were making it impossible to retain support for community groups and charities, which are central to the government’s vision.

Liverpool is the site of one of four Big Society ‘vanguards' launched by Prime Minister David Cameron in July. However locally based television producer Phil Redmond, who had fronted the scheme, spoke out against it this week, claiming the project had made little progress amid funding cuts.

That followed the news that Nat Wei, the government’s Big Society adviser, had scaled back his hours, which were unpaid.

Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, has now told Public Finance that the Big Society Network, set up by ministers to support community organisers, is ‘imploding internally’.

Bubb said: ‘Some of the apparatus they had set up to promote this idea is falling apart.’

He said ministers should be protecting and using the existing voluntary sector, ensuring cuts didn’t fall disproportionately on charities.

Bubb added: ‘What this shows is you can’t drive development through diktats from Westminster. The vanguards were devised in London as showcase projects, they weren’t things that grew from within the sector.’

Jonathan Carr-West, policy director at the Local Government Information Unit, said: ‘This is significant in that it represents a setback to the challenge of shifting the Big Society from rhetoric to reality – but the extent remains to be seen.

‘Whatever the politics and the immediate context, the need for councils to innovate, continue to deliver services, engage with local people while delivering the huge cuts won’t go away.’

The three other ‘vanguard’ projects are based in Eden Valley in Cumbria, the London Borough of Sutton, and Windsor & Maidenhead. Not all are facing the same problems as Liverpool.

Roger Roberts, chief executive of Cumbria-based Action with Communities, said the Eden Valley project was succeeding because it built on work that was already well established locally.
He said the vanguard project meant that local voluntary groups were now working better with local government, Whitehall departments and central bodies such as the Homes and Communities Agency. ‘Relationships like that have been transformed,’ he said. ‘Since the project was announced, organisations are being taken more seriously.’

Liverpool council had run its own ‘parallel vanguard’ scheme alongside the government pilot, but Anderson said this too had become unworkable.

In a letter to ministers he wrote: ‘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?’

Liverpool was seen as a significant choice for the pilot as it is a strongly Labour-controlled local authority council with a history of conflict with Conservative governments. But the problems with the project raises questions over whether the Big Society idea can gain traction across the political spectrum.

The council announced last week that it was to axe 1,500 jobs as part of a drive to save £141m by 2013. And third sector umbrella body Liverpool Charity and Voluntary Services is losing two-thirds of its jobs to cope with an expected £800,000 cut in its £1.2m budget for the coming financial year.

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