The Big Society Theory

We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages. We’re English, and the English are best at everything.” (W. Golding, Lord of the Flies)

David Cameron was reported in a Third Sector piece last year as accepting that his Big Society agenda (first set out in detail in his 19 July 2010 Liverpool speech) had its failings. Whilst he did not “accept the criticism that the agenda, which encouraged more voluntary participation in public and community life and services, was simply a cover to disguise public sector funding cuts“, he believed “the fair criticism that was made kind of came in two parts”. The first was that “you can’t expect all of these big society organisations, all of these social entrepreneurs, all of these charities and voluntary bodies to spring into life”.

The second fair part of the criticism, he said, was that “you can’t expect them to be able to cover all of the country, every region of the country, all in one go”.

These organisations were “very often under-capitalised, have problems in replicating their service” and had “difficulties expanding and getting the access to great technology or brilliant management or great systems”, said Cameron.”

Well, plenty of us with practical experience of the Localism Act 2011 would have a few additional comments. It is interesting to look back at what we were predicting when the Bill was going through Parliament – I don’t think I was that far off the mark in a Financial Times piece, Future Plans (27 May 2011, subscription-only). We all had concerns about the complicated procedures within the new legislation, likely to be most used those with the time and money, not always with pro-development objectives in mind. Neighbourhood plans have generated serial litigation, due to their often unhappy fit with other tiers of plan-making. Procedures such as the Community Right To Build have hardly been used. Others, such as the designation of land or property as Assets of Community Value lead to much activity and adversarial process (eg the cases referred to in my 14 July 2018 blog post, 2 ACV Disputes), whilst ultimately being pretty toothless.

Has the Big Society, localism, neighbourhood planning – call it what you will – led to better, more positive, planning outcomes that meet public needs? What should be the respective roles of democratically elected local government and of community-based bodies?

A short LinkedIn post by Nick Dines prompted me to have a quick look at a paper published this week by DCMS, Civil Society Strategy: building a future that works for everyone (9 August 2018).

What is Civil Society for a start?

Civil society refers to all individuals and organisations, when undertaking activities with the primary purpose of delivering social value, independent of state control. The government wants to build a partnership with charities and social enterprises, with volunteers, community groups and faith groups, with public service mutuals, socially responsible businesses and investors, and with the institutions which bring sports, arts, heritage, and culture to our communities.”

The purpose of the strategy is to set out “how the government will work to support and to strengthen civil society, without compromising its independence.”

What caught my eye in Nick’s post was a reference to the possible implications of this for planning. In fact, without any detail, the document drops some pretty worrying hints and one wonders what co-ordination has so far taken place between DCMS and MHCLG:

The government will launch the Innovation in Democracy programme to pilot participatory democracy approaches, whereby people are empowered to deliberate and participate in the public decisions that affect their communities. The government will work with local authorities to trial face- to-face deliberation (such as Citizens’ Juries) complemented by online civic tech tools to increase broad engagement and transparency.”

Public votes on planning decisions? That would be popular no doubt, for those wishing to derail controversial schemes but we may as well tear up the current planning system and NPPF – and forget about meeting any objectively assessed needs. Bottom-up planning? It’s that Big Society Theory, folks.

Furthermore:

The government will continue to encourage communities to use the community rights available to them. We will issue revised guidance to help communities take ownership of local assets. We will signpost support and advice available to communities to improve and shape where they live through the new Community Guide to Action and the MyCommunity website, the licence for which we have recently renewed.

[…] the government is exploring means of ensuring community-led enterprises which take over public assets or services are able to secure the funding they need

I note that this is in a period within which local government struggles to maintain libraries and other public services, with pressure to cut budgets in fact increasing (see for instance a Room 151 piece, Councils anticipate cutting services to ‘legal minimum’ published on 9 August 2018, that reports on a recent survey of council leaders carried out by the New Local Government Network). The very definition of “civil society” by implication excludes local government. Money for “community-led enterprises” rather than democratically-led local authorities? It’s that Big Society Theory, folks.

And:

The government will explore the suggestion that the Social Value Act should be applied to other areas of public decision-making such as planning and community asset transfer.

..which is an enigmatic and rather odd comment. The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 imposes a duty on public authorities, in procuring public services, to consider:

(a) “how what is proposed to be procured might improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of the relevant area, and

(b)  how, in conducting the process of procurement, it might act with a view to securing that improvement.

If what is proposed is the extension, beyond contract procurement and into planning, of the duty to consider how the relevant decision “might improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of the relevant area“, this would add nothing of any value whatsoever given, for instance, the very definition of sustainable development at the heart of the old and new NPPF.

Of course let’s do whatever we can to increase people’s engagement with their communities but also, more importantly (in the face of the increasing threat posed by anti-democratic populism – where a large social media following can be more influential than votes in the ballet box), local representative democracy. Neighbourhood planning and localism should not be at the expense of local representative democracy. If district and borough councils are seen as having real clout and the wherewithal to improve the conditions of their constituents, people will turn out to vote and an increasingly wide and talented cross-section of the local community will be prepared to invest time in carrying out roles as elected councillors for their wards. That’s my civil society strategy anyway.

Who wants the conch next?

Simon Ricketts, 12 August 2018

Personal views, et cetera

NB I thought this was a great bit of community enterprise though:

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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