Kevin Curley: The big society is very much alive - but it's a means of shrinking the state

The agenda was always about volunteering as a way to reduce state provision, writes our columnist

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

Is the 'big society' dead, as Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the sector chief executives body Acevo, asserted in a letter to the Prime Minister last month? I don't think so. It might have been poisoned by the toxic cuts, especially those imposed on local councils, but - as a central part of the 'small state is good' policy - it poses increasingly serious questions.

The big society was never really about reform of public services or social investment, as Bubb suggests. It was always about volunteering as a way to reduce state provision and to encourage citizens to do more for themselves.

When David Cameron addressed his party conference in October, he admitted he'd failed to define the term - but at last summer's Olympics the volunteer Games Makers had shown the country what it meant. Of course, they needed investment in recruitment, training and supervision - and these were not free, a point the PM chose to ignore.

The same is true of volunteers in Citizens Advice Bureaux, Home-Start UK family support services and in volunteer centres. All these charities have faced closure or reductions as local authority grants have dried up. This, again, is part of the big society vision, not a contradiction of it. Formal, funded volunteering, supported by local councils and the local NHS over four decades, is being cut back as part of the move to a smaller state.

At the Bassetlaw Community & Voluntary Sector Forum in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, I met Sheena Weaver from the Jobcentre, who complained that it often took four months to find a placement for one of her unemployed clients.

Geraldine Pearce, chief executive of Bassetlaw Community and Voluntary Service, explained that 40 per cent more people are looking for voluntary work this year than last - but organisations have lost funding and cannot absorb more volunteers.

The big society wants informal, no cost, neighbour-to-neighbour volunteering to thrive. The London Borough of Bexley lists the locations of salt bins on its website so residents can salt their own streets. In Dorset, the county council has given eight village libraries over to volunteers to run. These are easy big society wins.

But as cuts to adult social care and mainstream school budgets deepen, we will face tougher big society dilemmas: will you take your elderly neighbour to the toilet in the evening? Her last care visit is at 4pm and she does not want to sit in incontinence pads until bedtime. And will you help her in and out of the bath twice a week? Will you join a rota of parents going into your child's primary school to support a disruptive pupil after the classroom assistant has been made redundant?

The big society, the smaller state and cuts in voluntary sector funding are an unholy trinity. Together they compel us all to decide just how much we are willing to do for our families, neighbours and communities as the welfare state goes into reverse at an ever faster pace.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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