Will Britain’s ‘Big Society’ move work?

Stephen Beard Nov 9, 2010

Will Britain’s ‘Big Society’ move work?

Stephen Beard Nov 9, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: Folks who want to shrink the size of government have spoken. I’m not talking about the mid-term elections here. The new British government just announced the deepest spending cuts in a generation. Prime Minister David Cameron says his budget is going to help reduce the deficit. In the process, though, it’s going to do something else as well. The goverment’s role in everyday life will be getting smaller. Cameron calls his idea, “The Big Society.”

We asked Marketplace’s Stephen Beard how a political slogan translates into practice.

Sound of shoveling

Stephen Beard: This is “The Big Society” in action. The south London district of Sutton is giving away bags of grit, or road salt, for free.

Man: I’ve got some bags already done. So let me just carry these down for you.

Now local residents, like Christine Card, won’t have to wait for local government workers to come and salt the street in front of her house the next time it snows. She’ll be able to do it for herself and for her neighbors.

Christine Card: We really struggled last year. We’ve got quite a few elderly people down our way. And they couldn’t even get in and out of their houses. So this is fantastic be that we can be a bit more prepared this year and, hopefully, it won’t be as bad.

In Sutton Town Hall, the leader of the local council, Sean Brennan, proudly surveys a map of his fiefdom and just as proudly reveals that so far he’s given away more than 3,000 bags of road salt — all in, what he says, is a very good cause.

Sean Brennan: It’s about the citizen having control of the decisions being made about their locality. It’s about getting them involved in their community. It’s about taking responsibility for their community.

And it’s about saving money. His council can’t afford to spread salt on every road in the district. Under the budget cuts, local authorities will lose more than a quarter of the money they get from central government over the next four years. Many taxpayer-funded local services will have to go.

Sean Brennan sees this not as a setback but an opportunity.

Brennan: Now it’s the individual stepping forward and the state stepping back. Small state. Big individual. Big Society.

But not everyone in Sutton is taking up that new mantra.

Barry Todman: Yeah, they said the Big Society when it was first announced. I said it was the Big Con.

Barry Todman is one of the area’s most prolific volunteers. He now runs a group for seniors, and he takes a rather jaundiced view of the latest big idea, the Big Society.

Todman: It’s an opportunity for them to divert public attention away from cuts and things like that.

And he says if the Big Society is just a fancy phrase for spending cuts — a way of getting volunteers to do the work of public servants — it will fail.

Todman: If in fact someone that is doing a paid job gets the sack and they want volunteers to do that job, I will not get involved and I don’t think a lot of other people will either.

But the Big Society does have many enthusiastic supporters.

Sound of a loud bang followed by shouting and brawling

This may not sound like the Big Society in action, but it is. It’s a theater group in North London called Only Connect. Set up by volunteers, it aims to help ex-convicts channel their energies into acting and to deter other troubled youngsters from a life of crime.

The man behind the group is also a guru of the Big Society movement. Danny Kruger says projects like his are now Britain’s best chance of tackling chronic social ills, like crime, poverty and drug addiction.

Danny Kruger: The big state, the large public sector, which has grown up over many decades in Britain, is no longer financially affordable. But it is also no longer effective in its main aim, which is to reduce poverty and fight social injustice.

Kruger says that local communities and motivated local residents are much better placed to combat their local social problems. But having leaned so heavily on the state for so long, the big question for Britain, as the state recedes, is whether the Big Society will be big enough to fall back on.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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