In the run up to the 2010 election, David Cameron, outlined his concept of Big Society. A number of commentators thought this was a campaign idea which would be quietly dropped after the election. However, the Prime Minister has promoted the concept personally and there have been several high profile launches.
The Office for Civil Society is the government department responsible for Big Society. It defines Big Society as "about helping people to come together to improve their own lives. It's about putting more power in people's hands – a massive transfer of power from Whitehall to local communities". You can download all the relevant government documents from the Big Society part of the Cabinet Office website.
The concept of a stronger society by getting more people working together to run their affairs locally is completely in line with voluntary and community action. Our organisations are based around bringing local knowledge based on every day experience to influence planning and decision-making leading to better results. Evidence shows that, when people feel they have control over what happens to them and can take action on their own behalf, their wellbeing improves. When people get together in local communities and work together and help each other, there are usually lasting benefits for everyone involved. Groups and networks grow stronger, so people who belong to them tend to feel less isolated, more secure, more powerful and happier.
So if Big Society can deliver all of this, what's the problem? The key concern is that Big Society is being promoted against a background of the funding cuts announced in the government's Comprehensive Spending Review; particularly in the cuts in funding for public services, including local authorities.
However the government has responded by promoting the "Power Shift" where power is transferred away from central government to local communities to encourage a "flourishing civil society". Community empowerment, through the mechanisms outlined in the Localism Bill, is another strand, with the belief that this transformation will improve the quality and efficiency of public services. The third element is a call to social action with several initiatives such as the community organisers programme delivered by Locality, the National Citizens Service and more support for mutuals, co-operatives and social enterprises.
There has been a shift in the concept of how social initiatives are funded with a move away from direct state support through grant aid towards contracting, more charitable giving, more loans (and the introduction of the Big Society Bank), and an emphasis on philanthropy and more volunteering.
Newcastle CVS has responded to each of the major consultation documents, has disseminated information to its members and partners and has hosted a number of additional events and workshops so the sector is kept informed about what is happening, and has a chance to respond appropriately. There are also ongoing discussions with key partners, in particular Newcastle City Council, about what this means for the voluntary and community sector and any likely impacts and outcomes.
Part of the role of Newcastle CVS is around supporting and representing the sector and reflecting its concerns to decision-makers. In some instances additional evidence is needed and Newcastle CVS will talk to its members, listen to their views, commission research as appropriate and then act on their behalf.