the big society and local democracy

The Prime Minister has now said repeatedly that Big Society is his passion and that he wants it to be his most lasting positive legacy. Where a Prime-minster leads, an industry emerges: think-tanks ponder it; civil servants wish to legislate on it, columnists debate it, new Ministers are created to propagate it.  But what is ‘Big Society’? Local government thinks it means more local government; businessmen: privatisation; charities: money for Charities and individualists hope it means less interference. While for cynics, ‘Big Society’ is a mask for something negative: just as a Ministry of Information is in reality a Ministry of Disinformation; so for opponents, Big Society simply means Small Government.

All these people tend to assume that ‘Big Society’ will be a program: with a funding stream, universal rules, a hierarchy of officials and standard procedures: like a road-building program; or a new school with its buildings, budgets, management structure, a national curriculum, exams, targets and inspections. All expect ‘Big Society’ to be investing in one of the four old categories: the state, private sector, charities or the individual. But all these views are mistaken. ‘Big Society’ will generally have no budget, no universal and predictable procedures. Instead it will be flexible, adjusted to a particular place or people. Big Society’s concern is not with government, business, ‘the third sector’ or individuals but with something quite different called ‘society’.  All the others may contribute greatly to society but they are not themselves society.

Let me give you an example. My Cumbrian constituency is so sparsely populated that government could not afford to deliver broadband to everyone in the next five years and businesses or charities or individuals wouldn’t either (laying the fibre-optic cabling alone could cost 40 million pounds). But in a Big Society model the government could build a high-speed cabinet in each parish (which would just about be affordable) and encourage the community to take it from there.  Each parish could then choose its own system, choose between a cheaper wireless system or a more expensive fibre system, ask local farmers to dig the fibre-optic trenches themselves (which would cost a fifth of BT doing it) and run their own network (or get a contractor to do so for them).

Government could play an important role by opening access to primary schools cables, helping communities to fire radio signals from mobile telephone masts; asking favours from railway companies to access their fibre and making soft loans (allowing a householder to repay a thousand pounds investment in broadband over twenty years not one).  But government would then be contributing a public asset rather than cash; political support rather than instruction; a loan not a grant and it would be abolishing laws rather than making new ones. And the end result is not a ‘cut’ but instead a community getting something which the government would never have delivered: an opportunity for Cumbrians to consult a medical specialist in Kent or learn about new approaches to grass management from an expert from Wales down a live video-link without leaving home.

Which bring us to parishes and local councils. Everything – from organising communities to building affordable housing or generating renewable energy (which is our ‘Big  Society project in Crosby Ravensworth) or taking over a community center (which is our project in Kirkby Stephen) or rolling out broadband across the fells of Cumbria – needs a democratic body. If a community draws up its own planning regulations, giving it the final say on what can be built and where, that plan must be approved democratically and this should require a parish or group of parishes.

Big Society is an attitude of mind not a program: it believes that local groups – in our case parish and town councils – can be canny, competent and creative. It believes that local decisions are more informed, popular, practical and sustainable than government traditionally imagines. It believes that communities should be given the freedom to take risk, take responsibility and when necessary challenge regulations and government restrictions. But the responsibility is mutual: if parishes are given more power, they should also learn to take the larger public view and consider the consequences of their decisions beyond the parish line. Big Society is local democracy in the broadest and most generous sense.

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