in Politics

Big Society and smaller councils

Continuing the Big Society theme from yesterday my interest was piqued by an article by Philip Johnston in yesterday’s Telegraph (David Cameron must not be blinded by his vision) in which he argues that local councils should be the vehicle, and not the victim, of the Big Society.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the article generated a number of anti-local government comments. But his fundamental point is, I think, a good one.

Local government has long been a victim of centralisation; seeing their powers restricted or stripped away by Whitehall. This was even the case with the ‘localising’ Labour government who excelled in setting targets to ensure that local councils largely did central government’s bidding.

It is too early to know whether this government will eventually succumb to a centralising agenda. But the irony is even if they don’t local government may still suffer a similar fate by seeing their powers given away to communities.

Are we faced with the possibility of schools being run by parents, housing estates by residents, care homes by relatives and councils left doing not very much?

Of course, there are some services that people may never want to run but my concern is that the services that ‘make’ an area, the ones that go towards making Wandsworth different to Lambeth or Merton, are the ones ripest for community involvement and management.

This is not a bad thing of itself, I don’t see any reasons why these services shouldn’t or couldn’t be run this way. But does it remove a local council’s ability to have any sort of vision it can put into action?

To give a hypothetical example, in Battersea the council arguably sees Battersea Park as something of a jewel in the crown, and the facilities we have in there help shape the sort of people attracted to the area. Usage would be very different if we removed all the children’s facilities and replaced them with sedate gardens. We can define the cultural tone of the borough through the events we do, or do not, allow (imagine the extreme difference between an Orange march or a Bastille Day event in the middle week-end of July). We can even help shape the fitness of the borough with the facilities we provide, from the Millennium Arena to the bike hire.

But we couldn’t do any of that if management of the park were devolved to the Friends of Battersea Park. It’s not a situation I foresee happening (as far as I know neither the council nor the Friends have even considered such a possibility) but you can use any number of council facilities as the example. What if parents were running the local youth club, a sports club the leisure centre or an Agatha Christie fan-club the library?!

I’ll be honest, this is very much thinking (or blogging) out loud. But it is an interesting question, if we followed the Big Society to its ultimate conclusion in allowing communities to run their own affairs and direct their own services as far as possible what sort of society are we creating? Arguably it would fairly self-perpetuating society, since people would run services that matched their particular interests and values which would, in turn, attract like-minded people not stimulate diversity.

Instinctively it feels to me that there’s a political divide and it would be much easier of you are on the left to say this is why the state should retain a role rather than delegating to the Big Society. But even as someone on the right who believes in individual responsibility and a small state I can see issues that need to be carefully considered. As ever there is a balance, and the trick is finding that balance.

I’m not sure I know the answers but do you? What do you think the role of local councils are if we have a Big Society?

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