Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Big Society - placing our communities in jeopardy

This week David Cameron has once again been outlining his views for 'the big society'.

I must confess that some of the premises of the initiative are very hard to disagree with. Anything which can help to foster stronger communities through encouraging people to take an active role is undoubtedly a good thing.

I love the idea that community groups can play a strong and active role in their towns and villages. In fact the Friends of Thringstone group, in which I am a member, is a perfect example of the big society in action - and I am very proud of the work they do within the village.

Where I have a big disagreement with the Tory-led government however is that the big society cannot be a replacement for comprehensive public services.

We are in the midst of the biggest government cuts since the end of the second world war and these are disproportionately affecting both local government and the third sector groups which they have traditionally funded.

In North West Leicestershire alone we are seeing massive reductions in funding to community charities which will rob the district of vital projects which directly benefit our towns and villages.

Long established village groups are being placed in jeopardy because vital funding to their infrastructure is being withdrawn without which they may well not be able to survive.

It is undoubtedly true that a successful charity and voluntary sector must work hand in hand with public and private bodies and not independent of them. Regrettably the Big Society agenda is at grave risk of doing exactly the opposite and this is putting local community groups at greater risk rather than making them stronger.

Community groups are reliant on funding to deliver their objectives, whether that be for example providing money advice or supporting local gardening clubs. We are living through a period where traditional funding sources are drying up whilst at the same time private sector sponsorship opportunities are becoming rarer and rarer as the economy once again contracts.

Our government has not ceased to tell us that we are all in these tough times together. It can't be further from the truth. The cuts to funding are affecting already impoverished areas more than affluent ones and one of the central reasons for this is the big society.

Wealthy villages with a history of supporting community groups will undoubtedly be hard affected. Socially excluded areas who, for better or worse, rely on services even more due to their particular difficulties will be decimated.

My grave concern is that in developing Big Society thinking the government is doing so much more to compartmentalise our community groups rather than integrate them which in itself could well mean many highly valued organisations do not survive even in the short term.

When the District Elections take place in May have a think about the above points, and then consider this fact.

Whilst the massive cuts are taking place in our community the Sunday Times reported today that Mr Cameron has approved the appointment of a new MEP (following a European Parliament reorganisation). There is no obligation for the appointment until the next EU elections but it is in Mr Camerons gift. As a result there is due to be a new Conservative MEP in the West Midlands at a cost of £1.2 million per year.

Are we all really in this together?

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