There was one mention of the Big Society in George Osborne’s CSR statement. It is difficult to avoid the impression that this mention was tokenistic, especially given the widespread view that the Chancellor is among those in the Cabinet least enamoured with the Prime Minister’s big idea. (There are, it seems to me, some distinct echoes of Blair and Brown’s first term in the balance of power and influence between Number Ten and HMT on domestic policy but this blog is not the place to speculate on such matters.)
It is hard to argue that the Big Society ran through the statement and plan like the words through a stick of rock. True, there was, as had been expected, a strong localist theme. The message to councils is they have a lot less money but some more freedom over how to spend it. But, as New Philanthropy Capital (one of the most intelligent and balanced voices on third sector matters) argued yesterday by ring fencing schools, NHS and some adult care funding, it will probably be the non statutory services – ones which are often most engaged in community development – which will be the least likely to survive year on year cuts.
There is a tendency to see locally delivered public services as falling on a continuum with core statutory services (schools, health, police) at one end and community focussed and preventive services at the other. The lazy thing is to protect the former at the expense of the latter. But this would be a mistake. Not only are the best community based services very effective in meeting needs and heading off future problems, they are much less expensive. Relatively small shifts in core provision could liberate enough money to protect at least some community services. But will this possibility be explored?
Here’s an example. Imagine a social housing estate with a large primary school which also provides a base for some community based provision - say engaging parents, working with troubled families or supporting at risk young people. The default option is that the school’s core business of teaching survives without any cuts while everything else is scrapped. But if all the spending was looked at together, and a proper cost benefit assessment made, a very different policy might emerge.
The school might decide not to replace a couple of members of staff who were retiring or moving but to maintain class sizes by reducing classroom teaching to nine instead of ten sessions a week. It might then ask community workers to find and help train a group of volunteers (grandparents or unemployed youngsters, for example) who would be willing to sit with the schoolchildren on Friday afternoon while they did their homework or other extra curricular activities. Thus the school and community work more collaboratively, local people are valued and develop new skills, and important services which help to build civic capacity and prevent future problems get maintained.
There may be many flaws with this suggestion, but the problem is that in most places we simply won’t see discussion which place core and community based spending together to explore the scope for synergy and innovation. This is what I would call a Big Society approach to local austerity. Who in Government is going to encourage this kind of thinking?