An exact definition of the Big Society is difficult to pin down; it’s still a relatively loose concept whose detail has had to be pieced together over time. It was difficult to sell ‘on the door step’ prior to the election and its difficult to explain to the electorate now that its supposedly in action. But an examination of the Government’s economic policy provides much insight.
My own definition of the Big Society is the transfer of risk and responsibility from the public sector to the private or third sector (voluntary and charity organisations); the privatisation of risk. Providing public services becomes the responsibility of individuals or in the last resort, private companies.
In short, services such as running libraries will no longer be done by local authorities but by third sector organisations or community groups; where they are unable to fill the void the private sector will step in. The aim is to encourage individuals to take on more and more responsibility and become more active in society, giving up their time to better their communities.
A noble and logical aim, but the whole concept is rendered unworkable by economic policy. Funding for third sector organisations has been slashed, personal incomes have been squeezed and legal aid reduced. Individuals now have less disposable income, have less legal protection and less third sector organisations (that provide knowledge and resources) to work with; hardly a recipe for mass community participation. Instead we are likely to see the private sectors step into the large number of gaps where communities are unable or unwilling to tread; but only where a decent profit can be gleaned. For those areas that aren’t profitable and services have been cut, responsibility will fall on families, friends and neighbours regardless of their ability to fill these roles.
The Office for Budget Responsibility has published data that predicts that household debt (including loans, mortgages and credit cards) will increase from an average of £66k to around £77k per household by 2015, increasing significantly as a portion of income. As the deficit begins to fall the debt burden – regardless of who created it - will be loaded onto households, it will be privatised, transferred from the public sector to individuals. This is the Big Society in action.
The deficit is not being cut, but simply moved. Without a clear growth strategy households and individuals will have no choice but to turn to credit to maintain standards of living as wages and public services are cut. As the Government saves money by cutting back on services households will have to borrow to continue living as they are now. Should mass privatisation of public services take place, this debt will rise yet higher.
The net result of this is that individuals will be forced to take on more debt or increased risk if they want to access decent public services, yet individuals are the least well placed to do so. They have neither the legal protections nor the expertise and resources of the public sector nor private or third sector organisations. To think that individuals will involve themselves in volunteering without our culture of litigation being tackled, is wishful thinking. The risk is simply too great.
The public sector is best placed to provide vital services, such as support for the elderly or libraries. They are not driven by profit and so can undertake activities that are expensive, but vital; they have significant resources as they are funded via general taxation and they also possess the capacity to take on risk, being professional organisations with properly qualified staff.
The Big Society is privatisation, of both risk and ultimately public services. Though it may be dressed in the rhetoric of community action, the coalition’s economic, health and education policies all conclusively point to privatisation as the key driver in their policies. The redistribution of debt will not only define this government, but also the generation that are saddled with it.