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The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want


11:05 am - July 23rd 2010

by Paul Sagar    


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I doubt David Cameron was watching Channel 4 last night, away as he is in America. But his aides ought to save the 4OD link for him.

I’m talking about Undercover Boss, which followed Kevan Collins – Chief Executive of Tower Hamlets Council – as he became “Colin” and met people doing frontline services in his borough.

It was remarkable.

There was Chris, who delivers meals on wheels to the elderly. She used to stay for a cup of tea and a chat, but now finds it hard because cut-backs mean she has more deliveries in fewer hours. It breaks her heart – especially at Christmas – because most of the elderly are alone and she is the only person many see all day. Yet she meets them all with a smile, a kind word, and a parcel of food which literally keeps them alive.

There was Malachi, who works with those about to be made homeless who desperately need help. He’s only on a temporary contract, but he would like to do this permanently and gives it his all. “It’s important to treat the people who come in with respect” – he says – “because after all they are human beings, and it could be you on that side of the counter one day”.

Or what about Tim, who works in pest control. Not a glamorous job, killing rats. But Tim does it and he does it well, seeking out the holes and drains that are off his beat but also the real sources of infestation. “A private company wouldn’t do this extra bit” he notes off-hand, “they just go for the profit”.

Shazz works the Whitechapel street market – where he grew up as a kid – daily ensuring the regulations are kept to. But in his own time he and some friends have been designing plans for the Olympic area renovation, which they have dreams of putting forward. They’d like to look back and know they’ve made their area a better place.

Even Del and Mark – the somewhat overzealous community enforcers who hand out £40 fines for dropping fags down drains – hit the streets every day for 10 hours. They try to bring order to one of the most socially deprived, and sometimes chaotic, boroughs in the country.

Which got me thinking: if there is a “Big Society” it looks suspiciously like it resides in places like Tower Hamlets Council and its frontline services.

The Conservatives tell us that the state gets in the way. That by hacking away with enormous spending cuts spontaneous voluntary work will make Britain into a modern Shangri-La. Well Channel 4 neatly showed what a load of bullshit that is.

The ‘Big Society’ is already here. It’s Chris squeezing a few extra minutes to chat to a lonely pensioner. It’s Tim going the extra mile to keep people’s homes vermin free. It’s all the countless other unsung heroes we never hear a word about. Professionals providing public services, adding the human touch that makes the extra difference.

But the Big Society is under-resourced, over-worked and operating above-capacity.

If Dave and Co.’s rhetoric was anything more than a front for an ideological agenda, they’d be getting ready to reverse that. Instead, they’re deciding to make it worse.

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About the author
Paul Sagar is a post-graduate student at the University of London and blogs at Bad Conscience.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Conservative Party ,Fight the cuts ,Local Government

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Reader comments


You’ve got things all wrong.

The “Big Society” is already here – it’s all the folk you mention, and more – but the “Big Society” is about making it bigger by incorporating the voluntary sector.

The Meals On Wheels lady would have time to chat to her diners – if she had voluntary assistance doing some of the deliveries. Indeed the whole operation might become run and staffed by a voluntary group – lots of people want to help but it’s not made possible for them. It should be made possible.

But Tim does it and he does it well, seeking out the holes and drains that are off his beat but also the real sources of infestation. “A private company wouldn’t do this extra bit” he notes off-hand, “they just go for the profit”.

Funnily enough, my parents recently had a chap round to have a look at their rabbit infestation. After he’d had a look and they were having a chat about what to do he mentioned that he’d just removed a large wasps’ nest from the corner of the garage – no extra charge. Sadly they didn’t ask him for a critique of the working practices of the entire state sector, but I’m sure he’d have been very informative.

“The “Big Society” is already here – it’s all the folk you mention, and more – but the “Big Society” is about making it bigger by incorporating the voluntary sector.”

Incorporating the voluntary sector in the delivery of public services to make them more effective was exactly what New Labour did. Researchers describe the last decade as in many ways a “golden age” for the voluntary sector, as funding for voluntary groups increased massively and voluntary groups took over the delivery of a large number of public services.

These are now being cut by the Coalition, and estimates suggest that up to half of all voluntary groups will fold over the next three years.

Paul – excellent article.

4. Gaf the Horse

“The “Big Society” is already here”
Yes it is and all of the people who would volunteer already do, (my family all volunteer in various ways, but our time is filled already).
Removing paid jobs and then expecting them to magically be filled by volunteers is a bad joke, (see here for an early example http://www.i-volunteer.org.uk/newshound/strike-in-protest-over-volunteers/).

Malachi and Shazz (I didn’t see the others) certainly came across quite brilliantly, no question.

Of course the well-publicised problems in Tower Hamlets council lie higher up the political chain!

Many people would do voluntary work if they didn’t have jobs already. Oh wait, they are being made redundant due to cuts in public services. So that’s ok. Now they’ve got time to volunteer. What a great idea – now they’ve got time to do the jobs they used to be paid to do – but do it for free!

“Of course the well-publicised problems in Tower Hamlets council lie higher up the political chain!”

as a resident of Tower Hamlets myself, I’d have to agree – the problem largely stems from it being a rotten Labour borough in council terms. Democratic competition is the best remedy for corruption and cheating, though Mr Galloway certainly didn’t intend to provide much of a clean up (and thank god his lot are gone).

However, the problems further up the political food chain ought not to distract from the amazing work done on the ground by frontline employees.

I wish I’d seen it. Thank fuck for 4OD.

Whilst I absolutely agree with most of what you’re saying, if the ‘big society’ does something about these chumps:

“Even Del and Mark – the somewhat overzealous community enforcers who hand out £40 fines for dropping fags down drains – hit the streets every day for 10 hours. They try to bring order to one of the most socially deprived, and sometimes chaotic, boroughs in the country.”

… then it’s at least achieved something positive.

I really don’t need “overzealous… enforcers” dumping on me for ditching a ciggy. Nor do I want them to “bring order” to my streets, if that’s the kind of bollox they get up to.

What is this, Judge Dredd?

I suppose the inevitable compromise is that DC bungs some local do-gooders a few quid and they set out to stop me smoking in an even more “overzealous” fashion…

@Claire

Yes, that’s the whole sinister idea…. soon working for the state will not come with a salary, you’ll just get the Torie’s ultra-slimline state benefit instead.

What stumps me is that the Liberal Democrats are all cheering this along. What does this mean? Are they a cruel party after all or have they just been outmanouevered?

@Paul

Great article and sadly it reflects a government filled with over priveleged, out-of-touch minsters and MPs.

“Nor do I want them to “bring order” to my streets, if that’s the kind of bollox they get up to.”

Heaven forfend they should do such a thing.
Let the teenage gangs roam and f*ck the residents, eh?

Paul, great article and confirms what I have believed all along, ‘public services’ are not just mirroing ‘private sector’ jobs. No balancesheet can measure things like having a chat with elderly, isloated people or anything else that is not driven by mere profit.

Thus type of piece has pushed me into a direction of forming an opinion on how I will react as these cuts start to take place.

I can only come to a single conclusion. I will boycott any charity or volunteer group who show any interest replacing public services and I urge anyone who wants to see our public services retained do the same. I know that this type of thing happens already with hospices and certain charities for historical reasons and I am fine with that, but to force more services onto this footing is just plain wrong.

As far as I can see, the only way forward from here is to toxify the brand. We have to stop this ridiculous scheme in its tracks before the public services are driven into ad hock, threadbare and amateur operation.

Re: J. @ 8

If you’re littering, you should get fined until you learn not to litter. If you’re not littering then it’s suspicious that you should take this so personally.

Hope you get harassed and fined even more by the Big Society fwiw.

13. Rhys Williams

Very good article.
I feel that the idea of big society can quite easily work and fit into left of centre ideals.
As long as it is “working with” and “not to replace”.

Maybe we should look at ways to reduce the working day, more holidays, and retirement and then we all could become part time volunteers

@10 – teenage gangs fucking the residents?

You’ll note I referred to: “community enforcers who hand out £40 fines for dropping fags down drains”, which is bollox to me.

@12 – thanks very much Gwyn. I often drop rollies down the drain because the council helpfully removed most of the bins round our way.

Also because the ones which remain have had the bit for fags removed, so require you to chuck them in with the rest of the stuff. I accidentally set fire to a bin once by doing this, so select the drain option instead.

I hope you are chased by the furies for the rest of your life. Y’know. Fwiw.

15. Rhys Williams

Heaven forfend they should do such a thing.
Let the teenage gangs roam and f*ck the residents, eh?

Where do you live 9th century Northumbria ?

16. Peter Ward

Great article Paul.

An antidote to all the ideology of cuts that is currently being accepted as the ‘only way’ by the main stream media.

I think what a lot of people forget is that those that work in public service do so, in many cases, because their motivation is to serve the public. (Generally in a lot more meaningful and useful way than our elected public servants in Westminster). I worked for Meals on Wheels when I lived in a London and that service is a lifeline for the elderly who for whatever reason cannot cook for themselves (and on an economic point probably saves money as the alternative for a lot of these people is residential care.).

The guy that most impressed me was Malachi and the pest control guy, Who were all about providing the best service they could for the public and had a real grasp (in the pest controls guys case) of what value for money means in practice. He made an excellent point that where these services are contracted out, they are on service level agreements based on activity (particularly pest control) which actually incentivises people not to do the job properly the first time around. Malachi impressed me because he saw the humanity of the situation and acknowledged that you could be the other side of the counter.

I fear the day that the neo-liberal right wing administration start treat those who are homeless, in many cases through no fault of their own, or unemployed or disabled, as sub-human scroungers (something they have started to propogate already through the Daily Mail).

No system is perfect but the wholesale withdrawal or privatisation of services such as meals on wheels does not serve the service user well and that after all is the point of the exercise.

17. Dick the Prick

Funny how they err ‘found’ such committed and passionate individuals. Censorship perrraappps

“The Conservatives tell us that the state gets in the way.”

Yes, but what they really mean is that the state gets in the way of giving nice big tax cuts to the rich. Dave and his wealthy friends could not give a toss whether Marge runs the local library or Dolly mans the post office counter. What they want is tax cuts for their greedy friends.

The big society is all about the many taking on the majority of the work so the little society (Cameron and his landowner friends ) can do fuck all and get even richer.

Oh ,and Dave does not mind the state getting in the way when a police officer kills a poor sap out for a walk.

20. Flowerpower

It was a superb programme. I was all set to dislike Kevan Collins, but was totally won over. And the public service ethos among the council staff – particularly the new lad in the housing office – was heartening to behold.

A few sour notes struck though: Tower Hamlets Councils head office was altogether far too Goldman Sachs. Anyone looking out over the squalor in the streets and wondering where all the public money went has only to look at that temple of conspicuous OTTness. As for the fag-butt jobsworth: off to a libertarian re-education camp with him.

On the substantive issue, David t Breaker @ 1 is right. The Big Society is needed to complement public service professionals. Bean counters will always do daft things like giving meals on wheels only six minutes per delivery. We need volunteers to stay and chat.

@1 David & 20 flowerpower

Commendable as those who selflessly volunteer their services undoubtedly are, and much as an element of volunteerism in provision of many such services is to be welcomed, few people will actually be taken in by the Big Society.

The whole concept is a chimaera, dreamt up by a vacuous set of PR obssessed policy wonks, with an agenda to prevent a more equal society. Just because it has been labelled “the Big Society”, presumably in some faux attempt at apeing Kennedy-esque optimism, and the glamour of the 60’s Camelot, doesn’t mean we should forget that the Tories, pace Mrs thatcher don’t sincerely believe that there is any such THING as society.

It is frankly difficult to think of an idea more dangerous than the belief that the reinvigorated voluntary sector will somehow fill the gaps left by swingeing cuts currently being imposed. Turning back the clock to some rose-tinted 19th century idyll where self-help, charity and volunteerism were seen as the answer isn’t just wrong, it’s deranged.

There is a stark and very simple reason why the state is so deeply involved in provision of so many services: historically it was necessary to promote social cohesion and prevent untrammelled market forces (and the inadequacy of charity and volunteerism) resulting in chaos. The crypto-Hobbesian agenda of those who tub-thump for ever smaller government should be seen for what it is: a recipe for entrenching inequality.

If the Big Society exists, it is mad, bad and dangerous to know.

22. Rhys Williams

Good post Galen
You get the feeling that way the Tories present this big Society.
It is just another subtle way for corporate privatisation .
Stages
Replace state with volunteer state
Volunteer state fucks up.
Corporations pick up pieces.

Did we not have this with the share owning society.
We get rid of resources that belonged to all of us by selling them in unseemly way (remember Sid).
We all have shares.
We all sell our shares for quick buck.
These are bought by foreign corporations
Now are resources are owned by foreign corporation monopolies who control our basic needs of water and energy.

23. Flowerpower

Galen 10

The whole concept is a chimaera, dreamt up by a vacuous set of PR obssessed policy wonks, with an agenda to prevent a more equal society.

Not so; it has its roots in Edmund Burke’s “little platoons”. Most Christian Democratic movements in Europe have something similar… a vision of a society where power is not concentrated in the hands of an all-powerful State lording it over atomized individuals, but diffused through mediating civil society institutions.

Tom (from the OP) could get some extra business and kill two birds with one stone. I know a House that has a serious vermin problem (or more accurately, ‘lower than vermin’).

@22 Rhys

Thanks, and yes I think you are right to have a sense of deja vu about the “property owning democracy”. In some ways I see the Big Society as an even greater threat however, as it isn’t restricted to particular sectors.

Unlike the selling off of the family silver, or the obsession with “choice” and “targets” in more recent times, the potential to “roll back the state” is much wider under the guise of promoting the Victorian values of thrift, self-help, reliance on minimal charity and volunteerism as a way of reducing the costs of social provision.

It is easy to see the attraction of all of this to conservatives: the “undeserving poor” will be left to their own devices, because after all, they asked for it didn’t they? Meanwhile the “deserving poor”, suitably cowed by the threat of joblessness and the disappearance of services they used to have, will be expected to tug their forelocks, knuckle down and know their place.

Those lucky enough to have decent jobs will be faced with ever greater demands to fund private medical care, university tuition and loans, private pensions etc etc. They’ll have to work until they drop, and be satisfied to be treating as the tax milch cows for an increasingly unequal and divided society.

The rich of course will carry on much as before, avoiding taxes worth many times more the amount which supposedly needs to be saved, cut and generally squeezed out of the rest of us.

The Big Society is a great idea for those like Cameron, Osborne et al who can afford to be sanguine about the dismantling of the NHS and much of our social model. Whilst leaving the richest few % of the population who own 20% of the nations wealth in peace, they can frighten the masses with the various (mostly imaginary, or at least overdrawn) hob-goblins of economic collapse, a bloated nanny state, the perils of immigration etc to push through their inchoate, muddled and ill-thought out ideological platform.

The tragedy is that the LD’s are along for the ride. If we’re not careful the Big Society will have us all in a hand cart to hell.

@23 flowerpower

I’m not unaware of the background to such movement: the point is that any such volunteerism needs to be seen for what it is, and only ever can be in modern society: an adjunct, not a replacement.

It’s east to see the attraction for traditional “small government” thinkers on the right to promote such concepts, my argument is that it is much more difficult to see how they can make a meaningful difference in the large scale provision of services required in a modern society.

I have no issue with volunteerism per se. I do have an issue with using it as a fig leaf for dismantling the welfare state, keeping the masses in their place, and allowing the relatively wealthy minority to carry on regardless.

exactly, everywhere you go you’ll find people who do amazing work in their communities. i don’t know why people don’t get this – the whole feral youth, broken society narrative disguises a lot of great work.

i am a volunteer (and work full time) and one of the problems we endlessly have is funding. this is the same for most volunteer run groups i know. sometimes our sister groups are lucky to get government funding that allows them to get on with their amazing work. but if this funding is cut – and if complementary public spending is cut, the volunteer section will go down the drain. and you’ll end up with only the very time and cash wealthy volunteering and a lot of people unable to continue the work they started.

We get rid of resources that belonged to all of us by selling them in unseemly way

Ah yes, those happy days when BT was a nationalised industry. OK, you may have had to wait three months for a landline, and data-lines tended not to work if it was raining, but it was ours. We’ve lost so much.

@27: “everywhere you go you’ll find people who do amazing work in their communities. i don’t know why people don’t get this – the whole feral youth, broken society narrative disguises a lot of great work. ”

The Sutton Council LibDems have evidently bought the Big Society notion in a big way – see this video clip embedded in a local press report of an interview with deputy leader of the council: Ruth Dombey, who is claiming the Big Society is already up and running in the borough:
http://www.suttonguardian.co.uk/news/8284935.VIDEO__Big_Society_or_Big_Con_/

It’s sad about Fred but no one had volunteered to cover that day.

30. Rhys Williams

Ah yes, those happy days when BT was a nationalised industry. OK, you may have had to wait three months for a landline, and data-lines tended not to work if it was raining, but it was ours. We’ve lost so much.

Haven’t complaints increased since privatisation.
Also there are floods in cumbria and yet there is hosepipe ban.
Surely a big society idea would be turn the public utilities into charitable trusts.
The money then could be used to update the resource and if there is any left over can be given back to the people as a rebate

Not a vehicle for greedy twats like yourself.

Haven’t complaints increased since privatisation.

About BT? I doubt it.

Surely a big society idea would be turn the public utilities into charitable trusts.
The money then could be used to update the resource and if there is any left over can be given back to the people as a rebate

Slightly nebulous as the Big Society is, I doubt it covers the appropriation of privately-owned assets. Plus, you may have noticed that an awful lot of capital replacement is going on in london at the moment, under the strapline “Replacing London’s Victorian water mains”. Which rather tells a tale of how much capital investment went on under public ownership.

Not a vehicle for greedy twats like yourself.

What are you, eight?

32. Shatterface

‘Haven’t complaints increased since privatisation.’

Only because they can get through now.

33. Shatterface

Didn’t the Big Society use to be ‘civil society’?

34. Matt Munro

The big society definately used to exist before Nu labour destroyed communities. Closed down their pubs, strangled their institutions in red tape and regulation, put different groups in separate little bubbles and generally made people so scared of each other that they stopped acting as communities. They then insdtalled a politician as “communities secreatary” and imposed laws aimed at preserving the community cohesion which they had destroyed. The whole point about communities is that they develop, over quite long periods of time organically and randomely. Community cannot be imposed, regulated or “protected” by the state.

35. Matt Munro

@ 30 Rhys you are either an offensive arsehole, a drunk, or a scitzophrenic. I can’t decide which.

@34 Matt Munro

Oh come on, the rot had set in long before New Labour – they were merely continuing the tradition of fucking up society that was kick-started by Mrs T (no such thing as society, remember).

Agree that communities are organic and random though – imposition of society from above smacks of social engineering and the liberal in me finds that rather distasteful.

37. Matt Munro

@ 27 But if you are funded by the state doesn’t that make you an arm of the public sector, rather than a voulenteer ?

38. Chaise Guevara

” Plus, you may have noticed that an awful lot of capital replacement is going on in london at the moment, under the strapline “Replacing London’s Victorian water mains”. Which rather tells a tale of how much capital investment went on under public ownership.”

Elsewhere, too. Surely the answer is to have a public service, but not make it a monopoly? Set up a new version of BT and tell it to concentrate on service quality, but let private competitors get involved too.

39. Matt Munro

18 “Yes, but what they really mean is that the state gets in the way of giving nice big tax cuts to the rich”

But there is a circularity of argument here. The more the state does, or tries to do, the less individual citizens are inclined to do, it’s the social equivalent of the economic “crowding out” theory.
There was a story in our local paper about grass cutting (not a critical public servive but illustrates the point) . The council had stopped doing it to save money, so some local residents tried to hire a contractor to do it (can’t do that – “insurance issues”) and then tried to do it themselves (can’t do that “elf and safety” issues) so now no-one does it, it looks a mess and no-one is happy (except the council who have saved some money). If the state just left it alone, it would get done.

40. Chaise Guevara

“But if you are funded by the state doesn’t that make you an arm of the public sector, rather than a voulenteer ?”

I assume a distinction is being made between ‘funded’ and ‘paid’. Volunteers’ services can be a lot less effective if the state isn’t supporting them in terms of infrastructure.

41. Matt Munro

@ 38 “Elsewhere, too. Surely the answer is to have a public service, but not make it a monopoly? Set up a new version of BT and tell it to concentrate on service quality, but let private competitors get involved too.”

The problem is some things are natural monopolies. You couldn’t realistically have multiple water mains, multiple electricity grids etc. Look at the railways to see the chaos that ensues when you try and make a natural monopoly into “a market”.

42. Matt Munro

@ 40 “I assume a distinction is being made between ‘funded’ and ‘paid’. Volunteers’ services can be a lot less effective if the state isn’t supporting them in terms of infrastructure”.

Yes but it cuts both ways. Some voulenteer groups complain that once the state funds something it also expects to say how it is run, this tends to massively increase regulation and bureacracy and puts voulenteers half way between being a voulenteer and being a state “employee”.

43. Chaise Guevara

“The problem is some things are natural monopolies. You couldn’t realistically have multiple water mains, multiple electricity grids etc. Look at the railways to see the chaos that ensues when you try and make a natural monopoly into “a market”.”

Well, firms currently share such things (wasn’t the old system for landline phones that other providers would buy usage or space or whatever in bulk from BT, then make a profit by selling at a small margin and cutting back on customer service?). Perhaps you could have a system where each provider, including the public company, was allotted a certain amount of bandwidth etc. based on demand.

For most of the 19th century. governments in Britain took it as self-evident that schooling could be left to the charities and the churches. That stopped with the Education Act 1870, which provided for universal primary schooling, funded by local property taxes,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elementary_Education_Act_1870

Why did Parliament decide it made sense to intervene to ensure universal provision for primary education instead of continuing to leave schooling to the voluntary sector?

“We have noted a substantial body of original research . . . which found that stagnant or declining literacy underlay the ‘revolution’ of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. . . Britain in 1850 was the wealthiest country in the world but only in the second rank as regards literacy levels. [Nick] Crafts has shown that in 1870 when Britain was world economic leader, its school enrolment ratio was only 0.168 compared with the European norm of 0.514 and ‘Britain persistently had a relatively low rate of accumulation of human capital’.”

Source: Sanderson: Education, economic change and society in 1780-1870 (Cambridge UP, 1995) p.61

45. Chaise Guevara

“Yes but it cuts both ways. Some voulenteer groups complain that once the state funds something it also expects to say how it is run, this tends to massively increase regulation and bureacracy and puts voulenteers half way between being a voulenteer and being a state “employee”.”

I’m guessing that’s a budget thing; the state needs to be able to quantify the results to justify the money spent. Difficult one to solve.

“We get rid of resources that belonged to all of us by selling them in unseemly way ”

To bloody right. The private Gas, Electric, and water companies are worse than Fagan and his gang of thieves. They complicate their price structures to such an extent that you need an accountant to work out which is the best deal for you. The public is being ripped off big time, but because it is not a tax, Conservative Britain has no problem with it. They spend 20 years giving away the profits to their seedy little share holders and now say “oops ,sorry customers, you are going to have to pay more because we need to improve the basic infrastructure.” Well why the fuck did you not do that instead of enriching you share holders you bastards?

47. Matt Munro

Sally has a point. One of the arguments right from the start of privatisations was that the private sector would provide the investment that the state couldn’t. It hasn’t, we have a railway that would embarass a third world bannana republic, some of the most expensive utilities in the world, and a victorian water/sewage system. But at least we have “a choice”.

The BT comparison is a bit disingenous – they did pretty badly in the Post Office days, then in the ’80s as they were getting privatised there was a huge surge of demand – hence the monster waiting times. That over, they stagnated in the private sector for a bit (well, switched basically everyone over to modern exchanges, but the rest of the plant was left to rot), sold all their assets to accenture and leased them back and generally acted like a monopoly does.

Then Nick Clegg helped LLU to get passed at the EU level, which did the magic of turning the natual monopoly into not-a-monopoly-at-all-really-honest-guv and now we have BT Openreach, which could conceivably be renationalised without anybody noticing, an extremely healthy broadband market (honest, it really is) and lots of investment.

One of the notable successes of The Market in recent decades, I’d say.

(I worked for them for a bit :p)

As for water companies – don’t they get huge sums of cash from the EU to compensate them for not being able to cut off customers who don’t pay their bills? Or something like that? If they’re not going to be allowed to act like an evil capitalist empire, what’s the point in allowing them to be one?

Electricity privatisation doesn’t seem to have been a huge failure, either. Although, again, it’s backed by the National Grid. But I quite like having the option of giving my money to a company like Ecotricity.

I think I see a pattern emerging here…

50. Matt Munro

@ 48 But most of that progress has been due to advances in comms technology over the past 20 odd years, rather than anything the privatised companies have done ? I admit it would now be a bit scary to think of a state monopoly on communications, but considering they were given a natural monopoloy on a plate I’m not convinced BT have performed well over the long term – they are currently heamorraging customers, and money. And their ads suck.

Well, the breakthroughs in technology have made products available, but what’s driven the availability of, say, broadband, really is competition, in this case. The impact of LLU really was an electric shock – as was CPS. In no time at all, all BT’s products were cheaper, and rollout was massively stepped up for BB.

I don’t often like markets, but I think they did well for the telecoms industry.

As for their customer-loss – ofcom has a stated goal of forcing BT (Retail) to lose customers. It’s just what “the market” needs to happen.

Nick – what about the mandated coverage of the UK for BB?

http://www.parliament.uk/documents/post/pn181.pdf

53. Charlieman

@52 Will Rhodes: “…what about the mandated coverage of the UK for BB?”

We have wandered 200 miles off topic at this point, so I’ll be brief.

Some politicians think that every home in the UK should have broadband. Even if they don’t have mains electricity, mains gas, mains water or sewerage. The politicians have really thought this one out, haven’t they?

To provide broadband to every home can be achieved by replacing a lot of copper cables with ones that can deliver ADSL or DSL. Alternatively we can wait for a bright spark to work out how to use the older copper lines or to invent an entirely new solution.

Quote: “Barry Todman, chairman of the London National Pensioners Convention (NPC), believes [the Big Society] is just another way of introducing cuts to services and placing more responsibility on volunteers without adequate resources.”
http://www.suttonguardian.co.uk/news/8284935.VIDEO__Big_Society_or_Big_Con_/

As for universal broadband and the digital divide, using the internet stresses literacy and numeracy skills:

“Up to 12 million working UK adults have the literacy skills expected of a primary school child, the [HoC] Public Accounts Committee says. . . The report says there are up 12 million people holding down jobs with literacy skills and up to 16 million with numeracy skills at the level expected of children leaving primary school.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4642396.stm

55. Charlieman

@OP Pagar: In five paragraphs, you describe five job roles. But of the five, only the first two — the home meals deliverer and the worker with the homeless — are relevant to the Big Society debate. Even Eric Pickles would not suggest “bring your own ferret” as a solution to pest control.

And if you look at how services are actually provided, home meals and support for the homeless are the ones currently done by voluntary bodies in conjunction with councils. In the case of support for the homeless, it may be beneficial to the client that the advisor is not a council employee; homeless people may have had unpleasant experiences with government officials and prefer to deal with a layperson.

Sorry, but I feel that there is too much knee jerk response to Big Society. Cameron has talked about it (and classical liberals like me have pricked up their ears) but there is still no policy with meat.

56. Charlieman

@54 Bob B quoting a BBC report: “Up to 12 million working UK adults have the literacy skills expected of a primary school child, the [HoC] Public Accounts Committee says. . . The report says there are up 12 million people holding down jobs with literacy skills and up to 16 million with numeracy skills at the level expected of children leaving primary school.”

I’ll re-analyse that for you, Bob. 16+ million (plus, because some may be poorly literate AND poorly numerate) adults passed through the education system without achieving basic skills. But the New Labour ambition was that 50% of the population (say, 40 million in 50 years time) would be educated to degree level.

This is a bit of a pickle, isn’t it? When 50% of the population aspire to become a proffessor (sic) and one eighth can’t spell the word correctly.

57. Rhys Williams

Rhys you are either an offensive arsehole, a drunk, or a scitzophrenic. I can’t decide which.
Takes one to know one

58. Rhys Williams

Tim J
I doubt it covers the appropriation of privately-owned assets. Plus, you may have noticed that an awful lot of capital replacement is going on in london at the moment, under the strapline “Replacing London’s Victorian water mains”. Which rather tells a tale of how much capital investment went on under public ownership.
have you figures that capital investment did not take place under public ownership.
Also a private company has only one aim. To make money. By duping fools like your self into thinking they are investing in the capital investment.

Are they replacing certain parts of the system or all. I imagine that has happened since the very beginning of the system. Also they will increase the price of water to pay for it.,

Also in London they can make large profits, in rural areas they will let the system to decay because it is not cost effective. They way of the,market
I have no problem with BT or British airways enter the market but public utilities such as water, transport and electricity should not be under corporate control.
All you doing is replacing one set of masters for another.
Surely the left and right should be looking at ways where we have less corporate and state control.
Personally if I had the choice between a Russian oligarch controlling my gas or a democratically controlled state. I would probably pick the latter

As for been eight, I am eleven.
so nahhhhh

@54: “But the New Labour ambition was that 50% of the population (say, 40 million in 50 years time) would be educated to degree level.”

The truth of the matter is this:

“In 2008, 44.4% off boys achieved five GCSEs A*-C, including maths and English – this rose to 47.1% in 2009. For girls, the figures stood at 52.4% and 54.4% respectively.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/8456466.stm

One outcome is that there are now more women students at universities reading for first degrees than men:

“The proportion of [undergraduate] places awarded to women grew from 53.8% to 54.1%, continuing the long-term trend of more women going to university than men. The year-on-year growth in the number of women accepted on courses rose by 6.4% and men by 5.1%.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7194396.stm

The 50% target was only a target and supposedly set to motivate more 16 year-olds to strive to reach the 5 GCSEs benchmark – and that is important.

Btw why don’t we regularly compare what’s happening in Britain with other countries?

“According to the latest available figures, Britain was ranked 14th in a global skills league table.”
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/4372738/Almost-24-million-adults-with-poor-numeracy-skills-say-MPs.html

“The number of students entering university has increased by 50% in a decade across industrialised countries, says a major annual survey. But for the UK, the growing number of graduates risks a widening social gap warns the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The report shows that on average 56% of school leavers in advanced economies now enter university courses. But there are fears that in the UK that low achievers are falling behind.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7604631.stm

60. Matt Munro

“The 50% target was only a target and supposedly set to motivate more 16 year-olds to strive to reach the 5 GCSEs benchmark – and that is important”.

Well then why not make 5 GCSEs the target ? The effect has been that we now have an over supply of graduates and an undersupply of employable school leaders. The economy doesn’t need that many graduates, it never has and it never will,

61. Matt Munro

@ 57 Or maybe you’re just a welsh arsehole

If Britain – unlike so many other countries – doesn’t “need” so many graduates then how come this?

“The significant increase in students going to university in the past two decades has not damaged graduates’ earning power, suggests research. Until university expansion in the late 1980s, only about 14% of young people entered university – which had risen to about 40% by the mid-2000s. But the advantages of a degree have not been diluted by this, say economists.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/8077692.stm

“‘Graduates, on average, earn £100,000 more over their working life net of taxation than an individual whose highest qualification is two or more A-levels,’ said the inquiry document.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/8401267.stm

Of course, graduates with some subject degrees get paid more on average than others:
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/higher/table-what-do-graduates-earn-1675502.html

“A 2:1 degree is becoming the basic qualification for a graduate job as employers are swamped by applications for a diminishing number of posts. Eight in 10 bosses now demand at least an upper second-class degree and will refuse to interview applicants with a 2:2 or lower, according to a survey of 200 graduate recruiters.”
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1292299/Dont-bother-applying-job-2-1-degree-say-bosses.html#ixzz0uavM82oS

I have read somewhere, can’t remember where, that one of Scotland’s regiments, namely the ‘Black Watch’ is under threat of being disbanded.

I cannot think why the ethos of the ‘big society’ doesn’t kick in? Why not run the Blackwatch on a purely voluntary basis? I mean, there are plenty of examples of volunteer armies out there and a tradition of it in this Country, so what is the problem. No doubt many of its ex members are willing to keep the name alive, perhaps with whist drives, car boot sales or even a subscription service too. There are plenty of young men willing to go training exerises once a month, so where are the objections?

@50 is quite correct, comparing the old state monopolies with companies such as BT is unfair, in view of the advancement in new technology since privatization.

Something missing from the various arguments above about privatisation of the various nationalised companies by Thatcher and her odious bunch of associated mobsters is that, if they had been truly serious about a “property owning democracy” the said companies would not have been sold off cheaply in the equivalent of fire sales: shares in the companies concerned should have been allocated to everyone over 18 equally (except the mad, those in prison and anyone with a double barrelled name obviously).

The Big Society is remains a vacuous concept, dreamt up by a clueless bunch of political opportunists who exhibit all the political maturity of the the American “No-Nothings” of the 19th century. The great British public are in danger of sleep walking into the dismemberment of the welfare state. Sadly we have only ourselves – and the shrivelled husk of the progressive Left bequeathed to us by the vampires of NuLabour- to blame.

66. Matt Munro

@62 “If Britain – unlike so many other countries – doesn’t “need” so many graduates”

Bob, as you well know the 50% target was copied from the target in some other European countries (e.g France) all of which have higher uneployment than us and all of which have large numbers of graduates flipping burgers and/or migrating. No economy needs that many graduates, because no company that was structured with 50% managers and 50% workers would last 10 minutes.
The expansion of the public sector provided employment for our excess of graduates over the past 10 years only by downgrading the graduate entry level to what was the school leavers entry level only 20 years ago. It’s pure vanity, it makes no social or economic sense, the money would be far better spend on secondary education.

67. Matt Munro

“‘Graduates, on average, earn £100,000 more over their working life net of taxation than an individual whose highest qualification is two or more A-levels,’ said the inquiry document.”

That sounds a lot, but it’s only a little over £2k a year once you have paid back the student loan, an I suspect it’s heavily skewed by the relatively small number of graduates earning mega bucks in the city.

According to this latest news in the financial press, employer demand for graduates for jobs is greater this year than last and average graduate starting salaries are higher:

“The UK’s top employers have increased graduate recruitment by 17.9 per cent this year, restoring more than half of the swingeing cuts in vacancies made over the past two years, according to research published on Wednesday. . .

“Graduate salaries have increased significantly over the past six months as organisations compete to recruit the best candidates.

“The average starting salary for graduates is now £29,000, 7.4 per cent higher than the £27,000 paid to last year’s intake.”
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b91ab36e-839b-11df-b6d5-00144feabdc0.html

bloody good article

Anyone up for volunteering to do a bit of surgery?

Try this news out late on Saturday night about the cuts in NHS services:

“Some of the most common operations — including hip replacements and cataract surgery — will be rationed as part of attempts to save billions of pounds, despite government promises that front-line services would be protected. Patients’ groups have described the measures as ‘astonishingly brutal’.”
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/7908742/Axe-falls-on-NHS-services.html

71. Flowerpower

The plight of the homeless is a good example of why we need a Big Society.

A single homeless person turning up to a local council housing office gets no practical assistance. He/she is told – we prioritize families, there’s nothing we can do.

It is the charitable/voluntary sector who feed and shelter the single homeless. And they do it better than the council ever could or would.

There are many areas in which I believe the third sector could outperform state bureaucrats who are currently failing –

* transition from prison to a normal life in the community
* finding jobs for long term unemployed
* sex workers & victims of human trafficking
* teaching refugees or immigrants English
* ultra-local level small business development
* youth services
* running schools
* estate level social work and dealing with a/s behaviour
* drug rehab

The Big Society notion reflects a poor appreciation of Britain’s history.

Britain pioneered industrialisation through laissez-faire. Successive gvernments relied on self-regulation of working conditions to prevent abuse and schooling was left to the churches and to charities. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 tightened eligibility for poor relief.

Gradually, it came to be recognised this structure wasn’t working.

We had a long series of explicitly interventionist factory acts to stop the worst abuses in the employment of children and women:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Factory_Acts

The Education Act of 1870 created administrative structures to provide universal primary education funded by property taxes because schooling standards in Britain were lagging those in mainland western Europe.

“We have noted a substantial body of original research . . . which found that stagnant or declining literacy underlay the ‘revolution’ of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. . . Britain in 1850 was the wealthiest country in the world but only in the second rank as regards literacy levels. [Nick] Crafts has shown that in 1870 when Britain was world economic leader, its school enrolment ratio was only 0.168 compared with the European norm of 0.514 and ‘Britain persistently had a relatively low rate of accumulation of human capital’.”
Source: Sanderson: Education, economic change and society in 1780-1870 (Cambridge UP, 1995) p.61

A welfare state took longer to create. Credit for pioneering the beginnings of a national welfare state must surely go to Count von Bismarck, first Chancellor of the German empire (1871-90), who launched not only state pensions for the aged but, in 1883, a social insurance scheme to cover personal healthcare costs:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_von_Bismarck#Chancellor_of_the_German_Empire

Whatever else, Bismarck was not renown for his socialist inclinations.

The governments of Germany and France became proactive in promoting and influencing the course of industrialisation. By the end of the 19th century, industrial output in Germany was overtaking Britain’s.

73. Rhys Williams

Or maybe you’re just a welsh arsehole
A little bit racist form the LC’s Torquemada but although I sound a little Taffy I am English.
Also I have the courage to use my own name and not hide behind a moniker.

Also Flowerpower
Where the hell are you going to get so many volunteers.
What evidence do have that a charity runs a drug health centre better a than a LA trust.
Work with but replace ?

@71 Flowerpower

Although I don’t disagree that the voluntary sector can play an important role, my problem with what I hesitate to call the “theory” of the Big Society (I’m not sure it’s actually coherent enough a concept to qualify as a theory!), is WHY it should be seen as a preferable vehicle for delivering services, either in the cases you posit, or in general.

In your examples, there are no doubt many reasons why provision of such support and services by the public sector are not class leading. Chief amongst these I’d be willing to bet is lack of resources (of course, I also realize that provision may be inefficient etc). As a matter of principle however, I’m happier with the state providing such services, not unaccountable private bodies.

Note that I’m not arguing that there is NO role for volunteerism, but we’ve all heard of plenty of examples of institutions run by religious and charity organizations with execrable standards of care for example. I don’t WANT local schools run by amateurs (however gifted, media savvy and well networked they are), because the danger is in education and other areas you will end up with a 2 tier system.

The ideology behind the Big Society is important. There may be aspects of it which are worth supporting. However, if the agenda is one of rolling back the state, and worshiping at the altar of the bitch Goddess “choice”, we are right to be deeply skeptical.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/cjrnIE

  2. Jay Baker

    One of the best things I've read on #BigSociety RT @libcon: The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/cjrnIE

  3. Matthew Deaves

    The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want – in public services http://goo.gl/Sn4V

  4. Alex Bladon

    RT @libcon: The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/cjrnIE

  5. Sharon Lawler

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  6. Basher Savage

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  7. Steve Hill

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  8. Rachel Oldridge

    RT @libcon The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/ampcFj

  9. Rick

    RT @libcon: The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/cjrnIE

  10. Andrew Ducker

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  11. Oxford Kevin

    RT @libcon The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/ampcFj

  12. Chris Stagg

    RT @libcon: The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/cjrnIE

  13. Nick Watts

    The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want: http://bit.ly/aPqAiE

  14. Teresa Cairns

    Local authority services, overstretched RT @libcon The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/ampcFj

  15. sunny hundal

    Excellent point by @paul_sagar: 'The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want' http://bit.ly/ampcFj

  16. Claire Spencer

    It really is! RT @sunny_hundal Excellent point by @paul_sagar: 'The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want' http://bit.ly/ampcFj

  17. Adam Fish

    Awesome post about where the REAL 'Big Society' can be found http://bit.ly/ampcFj (via @sunny_hundal & @paul_sagar)

  18. Simon Shrimpton

    RT @sunny_hundal: Excellent point by @paul_sagar: 'The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want' http://bit.ly/ampcFj

  19. Leonardo Morgado

    RT @sunny_hundal: Excellent point by @paul_sagar: 'The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want' http://bit.ly/ampcFj

  20. Justin Baidoo

    RT @libcon The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/ampcFj

  21. Other TaxPayers Alli

    Great post by @paul_sagar > The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/ampcFj (via @libcon)

  22. Elly Shepherd

    RT @sunny_hundal: Excellent point by @paul_sagar: 'The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want' http://bit.ly/ampcFj

  23. Kerry Abel

    Good article about public sector professionals. http://bit.ly/bvqy9N

  24. Tim Beadle

    RT @OtherTPA: Great post by @paul_sagar > The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/ampcFj (via @libcon)

  25. noelito

    for all my fellow public service workers http://bit.ly/9qMQhA we are all #bigsociety #fb

  26. Dominic Campbell

    strong words but fair points RT @noelito: for all my fellow public service workers http://bit.ly/9qMQhA we are all #bigsociety

  27. ???? Mari Tomita

    RT @dominiccampbell: strong words but fair points RT @noelito: for all my fellow public service workers http://bit.ly/9qMQhA we are all #bigsociety

  28. Ben Matthews ?

    RT @libcon The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/ampcFj

  29. Ben Matthews ?

    Fantastic read on how the Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/ampcFj #bigsociety

  30. Mr Omneo

    RT @benrmatthews: Fantastic read on how the Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/ampcFj #bigsociety

  31. Ade Sofola

    RT @benrmatthews: Fantastic read on how the Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/ampcFj #bigsociety

  32. Emerson Povey

    RT @libcon The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/ampcFj

  33. Paul Barasi

    RT @benrmatthews: Fantastic read on how the Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/ampcFj #bigsociety

  34. Mark Foden

    RT @PaulBarasi: RT @benrmatthews: Fantastic read on how the #bigsociety exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/ampcFj

  35. Julia Ault

    RT @libcon The Big Society exists, just not where the Tories want http://bit.ly/ampcFj

  36. Indra Adnan

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  37. Jon Monk

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  38. Edmund Harriss

    ~RT @indraadnan: My point exactly:the Big Society already exists…overworked,taken 4 granted.Start by supporting them http://icio.us/4oyeni

  39. Indra Adnan

    My point exactly: the Big Society already exists, underfunded, overworked, taken 4 granted. Start by supporting them http://icio.us/4oyeni





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