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A Transition take on the Big Society (seeking comments and input)

One of the actions from the day held by Transition Network in Bristol in September to reflect on the Big Society was to produce a document on what was raised there. Peter Lipman and myself took on that task , and, based on the thoughts and ideas generated at the day, have produced the following, entitled “A Transition Take on the Big Society”. We would love your thoughts and input… please use the comments box below…

What is Transition Network?

Transition Network was set up in 2007 to inspire, support, network and train Transition initiatives around the world. Its stated objective is … “to catalyse and support community responses to peak oil and climate change, building resilience and happiness”. There are now 320 formal Transition initiatives around the world, and many more ‘mullers’, those mulling whether to become formal or not. It is motivated by the twin issues of peak oil and climate change, and argues that these two issues mean that the world will be inherently more localised, and that at present our communities exist with a perilous absence of resilience. Transition initiatives around the world are busy creating local food projects, looking at street-by-street behaviour change, working with their councils, and much more. As Madeline Bunting, writing in the Guardian, wrote in 2009:

“…if you want to catch a glimpse of the kinds of places outside the political mainstream where the new politics might be incubated, take a look at the Transition movement … it isn’t so hard to see why politicians are so interested. The Transition movement is engaging people in a way that conventional politics is failing to do. It generates emotions that have not been seen in political life for a long time: enthusiasm, idealism and passionate commitment”.

So, what is the Big Society?

In this piece we’ll be looking at the Big Society but also other, closely associated strands of the coalition government’s policies, such as localism, deregulation and spending cuts. David Cameron, on launching the Tory manifesto before the election, contrasted the “big society” with “big government”, and described a big society as one “where people ask not ‘who’s going to make things better?’ but ‘how can I – and how can we together – make things better?’” Although what it will actually mean in practice is still emerging, some underlying core principles appear to be that:

  • state intervention/regulation which is meant to promote social cohesion/capital actually corrodes it
  • the voluntary/community sector is better placed to improve society than is the state, and the private sector can help ensure that this is done efficiently
  • there are no rights without a responsibility to consider the rights of others.

Therefore government tells us that it will reform the public sector, empower communities and bolster philanthropic action, acting on “what the state can do for you, what we can do for ourselves and what we can do for others”. What will this mean in practice? Rolling back the state, including abolishing state agencies and looking for solutions to social breakdown involving third sector and social enterprises partnering local public and private sectors. In addition there appears to be a strong assumption that the private sector will be led by the market to being socially minded (and so that it is best to de-regulate).

Communities will gain 3 core rights under the Big Society – to buy (save), to bid and to build. Apparently the right to buy will enable communities to save local facilities and services threatened with closure, the right to bid will be a right to take over local state-run services and that to build will be a right to decide on planning issues.

All of this thinking is linked to current government thinking about promotion of localism and cutting budgets, and brings with it significant threats and potential opportunities. The former include a strong likelihood that more locally driven agendas could ignore wider societal goals such as acting on climate change and energy security. Further, there appears to be an assumption at the heart of the Big Society that if you make powers available to people they will have the time and the capacity to use them.

Crucially this whole agenda is likely to be associated with the removal of state intervention and funding without real provision for needed projects – where’s the money? At the moment it is hard to see how the planned cuts in government spending won’t completely undermine some of the objectives we’re being told are integral to the Big Society. The Big Society is aimed at people in more deprived areas, areas where parenting programmes, crisis centres, projects that tackle crime, support groups, after school clubs etc. can make an enormous difference. Following the spending review many of these projects are likely to struggle, and it’s not clear what will fill the gap beyond an expectation of communities doing these things for themselves with support from civil society organisations.

And when it comes to climate change – we now have a legally binding obligation to meet our climate targets. The planning system could be used to massively support that by (for example) very stringently reducing the amount of car parking to be allowed in any new development on a national and regional basis, eliminating competition re parking allocations between neighbouring cities and towns. However we’re seeing many of the planning levers that would enable this being ripped up, with decisions left to the far more local level. In the face of a widespread inclination to short-termism and in the face of other, more immediate concerns, that is deeply concerning because we desperately need really substantial, urgent action on climate change. The same analysis applies to resource scarcity and security issues, which from a transition perspective are best tackled by an empowered, active community level being strongly supported by national frameworks and infrastructures.

At the same time there may be opportunities – although these are not yet clear. For example, the fact that there is going to be a whole new generation of community organisers supporting the creation of neighbourhood groups could be very beneficial. On the other hand, what actual financial support will there be for these programmes? Or are they all going to be programmes that are there to take advantage of only if you’ve got the time and resource to do so? So what’s good about this? It should enable engagement and participation and in theory more control over what happens to us …..

More about our concerns about the Big Society

Some of our further concerns at this point revolve around the following:

  • Business is viewed as entirely benign: there is an underlying assumption that business always has the best interests of the community at heart and that it always operates in the best interests of society. While this may undoubtedly may sometimes be the case, to see it as a universal constant is dangerous – in fact the underlying constraint on business in our current system of having to seek to make maximum profits and grow connects to many of the issues we face today. We not only need to look peak oil and climate change in the face, but also to look in the face the economic model that has led to them.
  • This is no time for smaller government in all areas: a core idea of the Big Society is the idea that power be devolved as close to local communities as possible while at the same time reducing national and other scales of government’s sphere of influence. While we celebrate the re-empowering of communities, we feel the contraction of government to be perilous in the context of issues which need to dealt with at a national as well as a local level. For example, if ever there was an issue that necessitated a strong and co-ordinated response from central government, it is climate change. To give control over, for example, whether new windfarms are approved (the government is committed to a 5-fold increase in on-shore wind by 2020) to local Councils who routinely refuse them is a sure route to a low carbon economy never happening. There is a very real danger that strong local agendas will over-rule and derails vital wider social goals.
  • Social justice: what we see in Transition is that often those who get engaged, offering their voluntary time, are people with some spare time and with particular skills, and a confidence that their input of energy will make a difference. In more disadvantaged communities, these things are in short supply, so the Big Society does not operate in a level playing field – for the Big Society to work it would require a lot of investment in beefing up social enterprises and the voluntary sector rather than a rapid removal of support.
  • It does not draw from the experience of NGOs: a wide range of organisations have many years’ experience of community development and of enabling resilience-building at the local level. Yet David Cameron is quoted as saying “civil society does not emerge of its own accord”, arguing the it needs to be catalysed by national government. That is not the experience of Transition initiatives the length and breadth of the country.
  • The underlying narrative is not transparent – or congruent with transition: this, for us, is the most important point. The Big Society is associated with localism, cuts in spending and de-regulation as opposed to community-led re-localisation. While we agree with the need to give more power to local government and local communities, how and why that is done is crucial. What we have done in Transition is to create a powerful story, around resilience and localisation, around unleashing the creative genius of communities to respond brilliantly to times of great challenge. At the end of this paper, we set out what such a story for the Big Society might look like.

Big Society Opportunities

There is undoubtedly much to celebrate in the idea of the Big Society. Its emphasis on the need for greater community involvement in decision making, greater community ownership of assets, the rights to bid, buy and build, and on promoting social enterprise are to be applauded, but of course need to be supported and enabled. Also, the emphasis on removing the barriers to communities making things happen is very welcome.

The Distinction Between Localisation and Localism

Often, the terms ‘localism’ and ‘localisation’ are used relatively interchangeably, but it is important at this stage to note that they refer to different things. Localism refers to a decentralising of political decision-making. Janice Morphet[1] defines it as “a means of improving democratic accountability, providing a local mandate, and producing inter-agency approaches to localities”.

Localism can therefore be seen as being primarily concerned with governance, while localisation, on the other hand, is a wider, more far-reaching adjustment of economic focus from the global to the local. Colin Hines[2] defines localisation as “a process which reverses the trend of globalisation by discriminating in favour of the local”. Michael Shuman, an advocate of localisation in the US adds that:

“…it means nurturing locally owned businesses which use local resources sustainably, employ local workers at decent wages and serve primarily local consumers. It means becoming more self sufficient, and less dependent on imports. Control moves from the boardrooms of distant corporations and back to the community where it belongs”.

We tentatively argue that localism therefore focuses on political structures, the devolution of governance, the application of subsidiarity to democracy, while localisation focuses instead on the practicalities of building more localised economies, in terms of food, energy, manufacturing and so on, which may necessarily include governance. The Big Society promotes localism, but as it is currently configured, will only promote localisation by accident, or if communities take the lead and push for that agenda.

A National Perspective

As it is presently configured, Transition Network has taken a position of not endorsing the notion of the Big Society. The lack of a social justice aspect, and the danger that, in terms of what are perceived as unfair cuts to public services which penalise the poor more than the rich, means that the Big Society is little more a small sticking plaster on a large and gaping wound. While we recognise its potential, and the value of many of the tools being brought online, and remain committed to helping shape it if asked, in its current form we feel it to be something we cannot endorse.

A Local Perspective

For local Transition initiatives however, the Big Society may well be very useful. Certainly for initiatives with Conservative local councils or MPs, it offers a common language and an affirmation of the value of what Transition groups are trying to do. It is hoped that some of the mechanisms, and the potential of financial support via the Big Society Bank, are things that will be able to support Transition groups in their work creating social enterprises on the ground designed to put local, resilient enterprises in place.

A New Narrative for the Big Society

As was discussed above, a key criticism of the Big Society is the absence of a transparent and overarching narrative to underpin it. In the context of the UK’s perilous lack of energy security and the urgent need to show leadership on climate change, we feel that were the narrative of the Big Society to reflect this, to stress the positive opportunities that would emerge from a national process of resilience building, strengthening local economies, and reskilling people for this, then it has the potential to be an enormous force for good. We would suggest that the following might be a good place to start in terms of a new narrative:

“By 2014, the intention of the Big Society is to have achieved the following outcomes:

  • 2000 new community or social enterprise owned urban market gardens, on land permanently excluded from future development, running as commercial enterprises but also with a training component
  • 500 new ‘Food Hubs’, making local food available to poorer communities at cheaper-than-supermarket’ prices, modelled on Stroud’s ‘Stroudco’ food hub. These would be community-owned social enterprises
  • 40,000 people trained in domestic retrofitting and energy efficiency, with a larger target of retrofitting every UK property by 2020
  • 1 million fruit or nut bearing trees to be planted in, or around, our towns and cities, akin to the Millennium Forest project, but this time based on productive plantings
  • 3,000 self-build schemes to be underway which use 80% local materials as a way of stimulating and creating a local economy around the production and processing of local building materials.

These are just some initial thoughts, but the idea is clear, that the Big Society needs to be about the reskilling, the refocusing, the reimagining of a more local and resilient future, one which actually addresses the challenges of peak oil and climate change. This needs targets, it needs a story to underpin it, the story of a government, of a culture, which looked peak oil and climate change square in the face, and responded with creativity, adaptability and compassion.

Closing thoughts

We aim to find common ground with people whenever we can, while being clear about our differences at the same time. In the case of the Big Society, perhaps the criticisms set out above stem from the fact that we and the coalition governments have different understandings of what why we’re in crisis, and different visions of the future. Despite that, from our perspective there is potential in the Big Society, a once-off opportunity for an engaging and supporting of community endeavour and a shift of power to the local level. However, at present, it is perfectly possible that the Big Society will do little to impact on the communities being worst affected by government cuts, will in fact hamper any chances of a co-ordinated response to climate change, will do little to make local economies more economically resilient, or to reduce their vulnerabilities to impending oil price volatilities. Were there to be a strong narrative underpinning this, as has been set out above, and learning from the experience of transition initiatives and other community-led groups, we feel it would have exciting potential. This is captured in this oft-cited, but very relevant quotation:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”.


[1] Morphet, J. (2004) The New Localism. Town and Country Planning. 73 (10). 291-3.

[2] Hines, C. (2000) Localisation: A Global Manifesto. London, Earthscan Publishing Ltd.

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