From ‘Big Society’ to ‘Culture wars’, ministers misjudged the essential links between local government and community groups

Do you remember Big Society [pictured]? Or was it “Levelling Up?” Either way, the collapse of local government in England in the face of outsourcing, cost-cutting, and Treasury cuts has had a devastating impact on community groups that rely on a properly-functioning local council.

The announcement that The Big Weekend 2023 having been cancelled was a local reflection of this, even though a small band of us are exploring to see whether/how much can be rescued using commercial sponsorship and philanthropic donations. (Grab me if you think you could help).

The cancellation has caused furious debate locally on to what extent this was imposed on the council by central government austerity, and to what extent this was a political choice in the face of other alternatives. My take is the former – in part because I had a front row seat of what was happening in Whitehall in 2010/11 when it became clear that Eric Pickles was going to be the first to agree to huge spending cuts with the then new Chancellor George Osborne. With it went my civil service career – although I jumped before I was pushed, like many I agreed to the redundancy package. It was an utterly soul-destroying experience I would not wish on anyone.

In return for getting rid of the system of performance assessments of councils under Labour – which had become overly bureaucratic by the mid-2000s, councils were supposedly given much more freedom to spend what Whitehall gave them in grant funding – only that the amounts they were given were much, much lower. The result? Local councils were given the grim task of deciding which areas to cut rather than having Whitehall telling them. Which meant it was easier for national politicians to blame local councils – amplified by a compliant national print press.

When you look at the collapse in funding from central government, you can see why service fees and council taxes have risen to compensate.

As for business rates, the system is still in the ‘too difficult to deal with’ pile, even though over 90% of business rates revenues raised in Cambridge is surrendered to The Treasury.

Above – the cuts in funding from Whitehall to Cambridge City Council 2015-2022 (House of Commons Library).

Raising money from event fees in public parks

I was today years old when I found out such a schedule exist – you can read it here.

Above – from Cambridge City Council

Note this has become a very controversial issue – in particular on Parker’s Piece because of the damage some of the structures can do to the grass. But then the same can be said for the very high car parking fees compared to other towns. Those are justified on the grounds that the charges subsidise council services that are otherwise unaffordable, and also are some sort of compensation for residents who have to breathe in polluted air from vehicle emissions of motor vehicles driven by people who live outside of the city (and therefore pay council tax to another local council). As with the proposed road user charge, the debate also includes one on ‘property rights’ – Which takes priority: the driver demanding the right to drive wherever they like without hinderance or penalty, or the resident demanding the right to clean air?

*That’ll be £125 for your application fee for your group activity on the neighbourhood park please!*

The city council has to recoup the administrative costs somehow – but the net result is that small, strapped-for-cash community groups simply won’t bother in the face of such a huge barrier. At the same time, the strapped-for-cash council (and councils across the country) end up with a massive financial incentive to allow their open spaces to be rented out for commercial bookings (thus fencing off big areas for ticketed events) in places that are supposed to be open, accessible, and free to the general public. The privatisation of public spaces? See Dr Anna Minton here.

Who is going to run your new community centre?

I was talking to Cllr Sam Davies MBE (Ind – Queen Edith’s on Cambridge City Council) about the long-running saga of getting a new pavilion built on Nightingale Avenue Recreation Ground near Addenbrooke’s. This is a microcosm of what is happening across the country as the running of community centres is outsourced to ‘voluntary organisations’ – which means some people somewhere have to step up and subsidise the community activities of their neighbourhood in place of someone who should be in paid employment to do the same thing.

But then that mindset is what David Cameron seemed to have in mind with his ‘Big Society’ slogan. The stereotype is that of the group of affluent women who have the time to do that work because their husbands are in well-paid jobs and the children are old enough to look after themselves or are at boarding schools. This was the case with several of the women featured in the up-coming event at the Cambridge Corn Exchange – Celebrating Cambridge Women on 28 March 2023. Only in the latter cases the women weren’t just providing charitable relief, they were also campaigning for better public services at the same time before the Conservatives conceded to Liberal Radicals – and later Labour politicians on the principles of the Welfare State. (Don’t underestimate the impact that those pioneering women across the country had. Just because the bookshops and publishers feature more on military history does not mean women weren’t making and shaping our social history – they were).

Don’t think that everything was splendid for those women volunteering their public and campaigning services in their communities in the generations before the present one. Contemporary books and studies of the time can give you a more accurate picture. Fast forward to today and with the current mismatch between house prices/rents and wages, having two working parents has long been the norm. Who does that leave to carry out the essential but unpaid/underpaid functions that cities need to function? Who stands for election with the ability to commit 20 hours a week to council meetings, analysing papers, and community events? Who sits on schools and hospitals boards of governors, or patients’ panels? Maybe the four day week doesn’t sound so bad after all if it means more people from a greater range of backgrounds and experiences then become willing to put themselves up for those essential community functions that at present no one pays for.

By having a grossly dysfunctional system of financing local public services, we end up in a situation where community groups are charged for things that should be free or non-chargeable. Like administrative costs for processing a basic form. (I’m not talking about processing, assessing, and report-writing on planning and development control – which requires post-graduate level skills and training). Essentially it’s micro-allocation of costs onto the organisers of community events – and not without negative externalities, rather than having a system of pooled coverage of administration costs so that organisers don’t have to worry about the additional financial burdens, the pleas for contributions, and the inevitable paperwork that goes with it.

With that in mind, the model of Universal Basic Income (explore for existing and recent experiments) does the reverse of this at a local level by saying to people who cannot make ends meet on their own (eg me because chronic fatigue, 2 mental health crises and 2 heart attacks) that they don’t have to worry about the burdensome reporting requirements ministers impose via the Department for Work and Pensions – and instead can spend their time participating in their local communities. The assumption with the latter is that local councils themselves have the resources to engage with and encourage residents to do that.

That does not mean Universal Basic Income is foolproof, nor that people won’t abuse the system. But like the NHS and complaints about people being ineligible receiving treatment, are the burdens imposed by the systems of checks greater than any ‘deterrent effect’? You can apply that analysis to other policy areas too – for example soft narcotics. (See Dr Suzy Gage here – she’s the author of Say Why to Drugs).

The lockdowns of 2020 & 2021 taught us the importance of the caring professions and the under-subsidised carers – why haven’t ministers learnt the lessons?

For a long time I’ve wondered what the impact would be if ministers significantly increased the funding for carers and care workers – both employed and those in receipt of carers’ or fostering allowances. Would the positive externalities of higher incomes and more people able/willing to come forward reduce the negative impacts on generations of people who for whatever reason need such support? Note one of the historical challenges is putting a monetary value on things that have no financial price. What price wellbeing? You can only guess on the basis of the costs of those receiving treatment for things that could have been prevented.

What might the Tories be offering at the next general election?

At least ‘Big Society’ sounded nicer.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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