The Big Society, decentralisation and the May 2015 general election
Mirroring the Great Society social and economic programmes instituted under American President Lyndon B Johnson (1963-1969), Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled the Conservative Party’s Big Society agenda in 2010.
The Big Society was aimed at producing a climate in the UK which devolved power from central to local government, supported the charitable and social enterprise sectors and encouraged people, through a drive for increased voluntarism, to take a more active role in their communities. By July 2014, the Big Society Network established to manage these ambitious reforms, was the subject of an investigation by the Charity Commission over allegations that it misused some of the £2.5m of National Lottery funding and public sector grants given over to it – despite having no record of charitable activity.
In translating the objectives of the Big Society into reality, there has been a clear mismatch between promise and performance, as Dr John Stanton, a lecturer in constitutional and administrative law in The City Law School, explains: “The Big Society was a key part of the Conservatives’ 2010 election manifesto and once the Coalition had been formed, its values came to play a central role in setting out the Government’s localism agenda. Very quickly, this agenda was defined by promises and attempts to decentralise power and effect a shift from ‘Big Government’ and centralism to ‘Big Society’ and people power. Five years down the line, however, few would say that decentralisation has happened effectively.”
Not everything about the Big Society has been in vain. Dr Stanton, the author of a recently-published book titled ‘Democratic Sustainability in a New Era of Localism’, says a legal framework has been set down for devolution to take root. Added to this, he is hopeful that greater awareness of the localism agenda has been a positive outcome of the Big Society, despite the countervailing reality of severe local council cuts and the sharp reduction in funding for social welfare programs:
“The Big Society’s values were spot on but the realisation of these in practice seems to have fallen short of what was envisaged. That said, the Conservatives have raised the profile of localism, in part through its Big Society policy, and increased awareness of people power and devolution. What is needed, though, is a changed attitude with greater freedom for and increased trust in local councils.While provisions were enacted which sought to devolve authority to local councils, severe cuts and a central government reluctant to give local authorities the freedom of a longer leash, has meant that the vision has not been fully realised. Councils lack the freedom and the resources to be able to effectively govern and shape local areas and are invariably at the mercy of centralised policy and control.”
The 2015 Labour manifesto, in response to failures of the Big Society, promises to ‘put power in the hands of local communities’ - empowering people to take more of their own decisions alongside greater responsibility for delivering in their local area, giving them freedom to address local priorities more efficiently and effectively. Dr Stanton says Labour's plans “provide details regarding well thought out subsidiarity and widespread devolution. However, as promising as this might sound, this appears to be a staple of recent Opposition manifestos, often with the same results once the new Government gets its feet under the Whitehall table. Labour needs to show that the values underpinning these promises have changed. Local government doesn’t really need another set of enacted provisions, adjusting the powers that are devolved. It needs the freedom to be able to use existing powers appropriately, with the appropriate resources and without the overly prescriptive and bureaucratic supervision of central government.”
Devolution is the act or process by which a central government gives power, property, etc., to local groups or governments.