The accidental Big Society

David Cameron’s much-maligned pet project is being revived in all but name as community activists lead the way in their localities.

Granby Street Market, Liverpool (Credit: Granby 4 Streets Community Land Trust @ Facebook)

The failure of David Cameron’s Big Society project, unveiled with much fanfare in July 2010, is really a textbook example of how to kill off policy through disastrous PR alone. The launch was one of Cameron’s first flagship announcements following his installation as prime minister two months prior, but its trite branding, vagueness and baseless sense of sweeping optimism sat uneasily with the mood of a beleaguered nation at that time.

Still enduring the effects of recession and facing up to years of austerity, the British people did not take kindly to being told to pull themselves up by the bootstraps via a catchy, corny soundbite. The fundamental idea of transferring responsibility for running public services from government to local communities has merits, but the Big Society as a concept smacked of the kind of complacent metropolitanism that would always dog Cameron’s leadership. A series of subsequent, piecemeal initiatives failed to provide clarity around which community projects would be prioritised for funding, and how services would join up. Ultimately the term Big Society was quietly dropped, to be spoken of only as shorthand for political folly.

It is interesting to see then how much of Cameron’s vision is now coming to fruition, albeit accidentally and out of necessity as public services come under increasing strain. Across the country there is a growing movement of community action groups that are forming to fill the void left by derelict or defunct local services – from a community-run bus service in Witney to a community library in Hartlepool which also serves as an adult education and training centre, community kitchen and much else besides. These services are invariably supported by grants, donations, community crowdfunding schemes and tireless volunteers.

To look at these projects more closely is to see the creative, resourceful expression of “people power” that Cameron championed, yet the Conservative Party is not reaping any dividend from this groundswell of community activism. On the contrary, the Tories are often seen as creating the need within these areas, and little more. Regeneration efforts are in spite of, not because of, government action. In making such an unseemly hash of the Big Society project, the Tories undermined their own ability to redefine the social contract in tandem with their spending cuts.

Instead, it is Jeremy Corbyn who has picked up the Big Society baton in all but name. At the Labour conference in September, Corbyn visited the Granby 4 Streets project in Liverpool and declared the community land trust, which is regenerating neighbourhoods through affordable housing, to be “a blueprint for what the rest of the UK could look like under a Labour government”. Labour has been homing in on similar projects across the country after setting up a community wealth building unit earlier this year.

There are signs that the Tories are catching on and shaping policy with the aim of empowering communities – albeit without the Big Society moniker attached. The government’s launch this summer of a £163m community housing fund is one example of a more meaningful shift towards tackling the housing crisis from the grassroots up. The key is for government to get out of the way, replacing bureaucratic barriers with the right kind of funding and support to help communities help themselves.

That is a compelling position for the Tories to take, if executed effectively and communicated clearly. Just don’t ask David Cameron for any PR tips.

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