Editorial: One spike doesn't make a big society

Time will tell whether higher volunteering will last, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

The government was justifiably pleased last week with figures from its new Community Life survey indicating that volunteering in the months from August to October last year was significantly up on the level recorded by the Citizenship Survey in 2010/11.

The proportion of respondents saying they volunteered at least once a year was up 6 percentage points to 71, and the proportion volunteering once a month was up 8 points to 49 per cent. There was also an increase in the proportion of those saying they wanted to be more involved in council decisions affecting their area, which on the face of it bodes well for the government's localism agenda.

Even though the survey took place when the impact of volunteering for the London Games was at its height, Nick Hurd, the charities minister, claimed that the change was not attributable just to the Olympics. He cited the effect of government policies such as the National Citizens Service for 16 and 17-year-olds and the Social Action Fund, which helps charities recruit volunteers.

But does all this really equate to what the Cabinet Office calls "cultural change" and "a vindication of the big society agenda"? Last time there was a spike in volunteering was in 2005, when there was a big push because of the Year of Volunteering. That was followed by six years of gradual decline. The best one can say is that one swallow does not make a summer, and that the next quarterly figures will be out soon.

And while the government suggests that people are volunteering willingly because they are becoming community-minded, it might be the case that some are volunteering because they perceive they have no choice. If statutory services are withdrawn or restricted, individuals must step in willy-nilly.

This might simply be something we will all have to get used to as comparative austerity becomes a long-term way of life. Do you call that aspect of things the big society, or is it the "do-it-yourself society" that Nick Clegg famously denounced in the run-up to the last election?

- Read our analysis on the rise in volunteering

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