Big Society Commission report sparks localism debate

Its call for the PM to take control smacks of centralism, says Richard Kemp of the Local Government Association

Richard Kemp
Richard Kemp

The call by the Commission on Big Society for the Prime Minister to take control of the big society agenda runs counter to the spirit of localism, according to the vice chair of the Local Government Association.

Richard Kemp was speaking from the audience at the launch of Powerful people, responsible society, report of the commission, which was set up by the chief executives body Acevo to examine the big society agenda.

Kemp said:"It asks for more direction from the centre. It wants to see a central definition of the big society, the Prime Minister taking more responsibility for it and central government telling councils how to spend their budgets. These are quaintly old-fashioned requests and it isn’t localism."

Responding from the platform, Conservative MP Nick Boles, a member of the Commission on Big Society, said: "Localism is not about giving more power to councils. It is about empowering communities to take action.

"It is not responsible for central government to be indifferent about how local authorities manage the funding they get from the centre. In my view they should not have total freedom to decide whether that money is spent in-house or out in smaller organisations in the private, charitable and voluntary sectors."

Mark Astarita, chair of the Institute of Fundraising and another member of the audience, said the report did not place enough emphasis on fundraising. "This report is light on giving," he said. "It fails to mention philanthropy and there is no mention of Gift Aid. It mentions payroll giving, but this is not something most charities see as a priority."

Hugh Biddell, head of charities and public sector at the Royal Bank of Scotland, told Third Sector at the event that he did not think the report had taken into account the scale of work that many banks did to support charities and vulnerable people.

The report says banks missed an "historic opportunity" to give more support to the voluntary sector by not offering to make substantial changes in their approach to the sector and to vulnerable individuals as part of the Project Merlin talks on funding the Big Society Bank.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations issued a statement welcoming the commission’s report. "This report is a positive step forward in setting out the roles that everyone needs to play to get the big society agenda up and running," it said.

"Partnership working and a clear understanding of the challenges and opportunities ahead will be essential if the government wants to counter the current cynicism and get the voluntary sector and the communities it serves to buy fully into the idea."

Peter Kyle, acting chief executive of Acevo, told Third Sector: "We are glad that this report has provided a talking point about what the big society means. I was impressed with the lively debate at the launch event."

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