Editorial: The big society projects that went pear-shaped

The government attempted to make them look like a spontaneous part of the voluntary sector, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

David Cameron and his entourage had a choice after the last election, when they set about promoting the idea of the big society and trying to turn it into action on the ground. As the elected custodians of taxpayers’ money, they could have set up a big society programme in a Whitehall department, shaped it, directed it and taken responsibility for its success or failure – much as they have done for, say, the National Citizen Service.

Instead, they chose to proceed in a roundabout way, setting up a non-profit company, the Big Society Network, and a charity, the Society Network Foundation. They presumably did it this way in order to create an illusion, which might eventually become reality, that the big society was a spontaneous part of the voluntary sector, emanating from the people.

Like the rest of the voluntary sector, these organisations needed funding, and they were encouraged to go to two of the usual sources, the Big Lottery Fund and the Social Action Fund, which was funded by the Cabinet Office, with its administration subcontracted to the Social Investment Business.

That was where things began to go pear-shaped. The BSN and the SNF wanted to run projects that looked risky from the start, to put it kindly:  Get In, a children’s fitness project, Your Square Mile, a community cohesion project, and Your Personal Best, a hare-brained Olympic legacy idea.

The BLF gave them grants under its solicited bids scheme, despite the fact that they had no track record, and then failed to follow one of its administrative guidelines on VAT; and when the Social Investment Business demurred, it was in effect arm-twisted into making an award. These shortcomings were recently spelled out by a National Audit Office inquiry.

This week came the denouement in parliament, where the new charities minister, Brooks Newmark, was obliged to follow his unfortunate remarks about knitting the week before with an admission that the decision on the Social Action Fund grant was made by his predecessor, Nick Hurd, "supported by the programme’s advisory panel".

This rather disreputable series of events now threatens to descend into farce. The Big Society Network’s attempt to dissolve itself has been halted by Companies House, possibly because a creditor has objected. And the Society Network Foundation is contesting a claim by the Cabinet Office that it should pay back nearly £34,000.

Whatever happens next, this episode knocks another large nail into the coffin of the big society as a viable political idea to put before the voters at the next election.

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