Analysis: Big society is the hot topic at the Conservative Party conference

Fringe events at this year's conference attempted to define the concept of big society

Party faithful
Party faithful

The voluntary sector could hardly have hoped for a higher political profile than it had at this year's Conservative Party conference.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, used his closing speech to praise the involvement of charities, faith groups and social enterprises in running public services, particularly those whose work supports offenders and drug addicts.

And on the fringe, it was difficult to escape the phrase "big society". Many of the fringe meetings attempted to define the elusive concept. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said it meant giving power to groups that were "granular, hyper-local, small-scale and bottom-up".

David Burbage, the leader of Windsor and Maidenhead Council, said it was a world in which "the state is small and the people are big".

Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, gave an unexpected definition when he said the big society was exemplified by the coffee chain Starbucks. "It provides space for people to come together, which is what we're all about," he told a gathering in a Birmingham branch of the cafe during the conference.

Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, summed it up when he told a fringe meeting: "The big society is like the Holy Trinity: if you're asking questions about what it means, you don't understand it."

The words do have some tangible implications. The government's white paper on commissioning reform, Lord Hodgson's deregulation taskforce and the National Citizen Service are all key parts, but ministers at the conference made it clear that the big society was also about a lot of other issues: local authorities making more information public, customers and staff being more free to challenge big companies, the removal of some health and safety regulations, and parents setting up their own schools.

Charities that see themselves as the heart of the big society, and especially those that think the concept's political prominence will shield them from funding cuts, seem to have misunderstood the concept. Many in the sector also seem to have misunderstood the big society by seeing it as a government programme. "The problem is, people want us to tell them what to do," said Hurd at a fringe meeting. "They just need to do it."

But Dame Fiona Reynolds, director general of the National Trust, said during the conference that she thought the government should provide a framework for big society, rather than "just sitting back and letting it happen".

Moira Lees, group secretary of the Co-operative Group, said her organisation had received a lot of phone calls from local groups asking for "support and guidance" on how to implement the big society.

Charities might try to curry favour with the government by asking for advice on how to become part of the big society. But the big lesson from the conference was that if they do, they're likely to look out of touch and become increasingly alienated.

- Read Third Sector's round-up of all the Conference news

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