Naturally, I would prefer to see more positive headlines about the “big society”, but I am very upbeat about the torrent of newsprint expended on this subject.
For too long, our country has failed to have a proper debate on how we can make our society stronger and give people more power. Now it is happening. And not just in the thinktanks of Westminster and newspapers of Fleet Street. The big society has been a topic of discussion on a wider basis – from being on the agenda at the General Synod to being debated in front of a live television audience.
Unsurprisingly, some people want to attack it rather than join it, but unlike so many other political ideas which are dropped or forgotten within days of being suggested, I believe all the interest and debate means we’re on to something. Nevertheless, I’m fully aware of the criticisms that have been levelled at it, so let me address them head-on.
The first objection is that it is too vague. I reject that. True, it doesn’t follow some grand plan or central design. But that’s because the whole approach of building a bigger, stronger, more active society involves something of a revolt against the top-down, statist approach of recent years. And neither is it about just one thing. Rather, it combines three clear methods to bring people together to improve their lives and the lives of others: devolving power to the lowest level so neighbourhoods take control of their destiny; opening up our public services, putting trust in professionals and power in the hands of the people they serve; and encouraging volunteering and social action so people contribute more to their community.
So the big society doesn’t apply to one area of policy, but many. For example, if neighbours want to take over the running of a post office, park or playground, we will help them. If a charity or a faith group want to set up a great new school in the state sector, we’ll let them. And if someone wants to help out with children, we will sweep away the criminal record checks and health and safety laws that stop them.
The second criticism is that this is all a cover for cuts. That’s simply not true. I was talking about social responsibility long before the cuts. Building a stronger, bigger society is something we should try and do whether spending is going up or down.
But there is a broader point to be made. As the state spends less and does less, which would be happening whichever party was in government, there would be a positive benefit if some parts of society were to step forward and do more. We can either stick our heads in the sand about this or work out how best to galvanise that social response.
The third criticism is that this may work in the leafy sort of areas that I represent, such as West Oxfordshire, but it won’t work in the most deprived parts of our country. Now, I could point to the failure of the alternative – big government – to help the poorest in the last decade, as the poorest got poorer and inequality widened.
But there is another powerful point: a lot of this criticism is misguided and founded on snobbery. Take a trip with me to Balsall Heath in Birmingham and I’ll show you a place once depressingly known as a sink estate but now a genuinely desirable place to live. Why the transformation? Because even in a tough neighbourhood, the seeds of a stronger society were there and residents boldly decided they’d had enough and drove out the crime.
People have the compassion, flexibility and local knowledge to help their neighbours and communities. Our approach will not merely enable them to build a stronger society, it will actively help them to do so.
We are not naively hoping the seeds will grow everywhere of their own accord; we are helping to nurture them. That’s why we will soon be announcing the partners who will help us deliver our commitment to provide 5,000 community organisers in the areas where they are needed most.
Fourth, some people say that what I’m talking about is not entirely new. I agree. I think one of the reasons why there’s so much debate about the big society, and why the phrase has already become quite well embedded, is that so much of it has actually been going on for years. The questions are: how do we encourage more of it? Do we want people’s good intentions to be backed and encouraged or stopped and smothered?
Ask most people and I know what the answer would be. Indeed, every time we’ve given people the chance to play a bigger part in society, they’ve grasped it. Already we’ve had more than 250 applications to set up a free school – with the first ones opening this September. Twenty-one public service mutuals have been given the green light. And the online crime maps received more than 300 million hits in their first week.
Finally, some people say that the big society can’t happen because our voluntary bodies are being starved of state money. No area can be immune from cuts, but I’d ask people to look beyond the headlines and see a much bigger structural change in how the voluntary sector can work in future. We are in the process of opening up billions of pounds’ worth of government contracts so charities and social enterprises can compete for the first time. The scale of this opportunity dwarfs anything they’ve ever had before.
But we understand that while the opportunity lies in the future the local authority cuts are happening now. So this week we are launching a transition fund to help charities prepare to bid for these contracts and a big society bank to provide some working capital when they’re awarded them.
The big society is about changing the way our country is run. No more of a government treating everyone like children who are incapable of taking their own decisions. Instead, let’s treat adults like adults and give them more responsibility over their lives. That’s why, in reality, this is quite different from what politicians have offered in the past.
This is not another government initiative – it’s about giving you the initiative to take control of your life and work with those around you to improve things. It has the power to transform our country. That’s why the big society is here to stay.
By David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.