When David Cameron became the 14th British Prime Minister since 1946, he entered number 10 Downing Street with two real problems- a government in debt, and an economy in decline. One solution has been a much publicized, and sometimes ridiculed concept of a “Big Society.” What are the advantages and disadvantages of creating a Big Society?
What is a Big Society?
Local state run services are transferred into the hands of community groups and organizations, who effectively take over the existing government run service. Funding is made through a new bank, partly financed by funds left in dormant and expired bank accounts. According to the architect of this plan- David Cameron- communities can take over running local transport routes, public libraries, schools and a whole range of other services.
Four Main Advantages of a Big Society?
1. Many citizens feel that some state run services are inefficient, and badly organized. Transferring these services to local groups and charities, could make them more democratic,
2. Technically people can form a community, and volunteer to run these services which could range from taking over a rural bus service to running a school.- creating independence within a community- instead of dependency on the state.
3. Charities are also “tax free,” which means all funding is excluded from state taxation, and any profits can in theory be funneled back into improving the service, based on the needs of the community.
4. The government may save billions, which could be used to pay back a wide range of creditors, and funnel excess funds into improving the services it still runs. The community win, because they get a chance to provide a service they want- without any governmental interference.
What are the Disadvantages of a Big Society?
1. One main disadvantage is that funding may depend on how wealthy the community is who take over the existing bus route or library, and how willing people are to volunteer to help run these services.
2. The UK has had no recent history of mass volunteerism, and many communities are actually a mixture of new arrivals, migrant workers and short-term residents. Accustomed to a welfare state, and needing to earn money in one of the World’s most expensive countries- many people may not have the time to volunteer.
3. Free market economies emphasize on self reliance, rather than community reliance. A paradox where volunteerism is needed to keep some services running, but at the same time these they could remain in competition with private business- who profit from running a similar service.
4. Some people believe the UK is a broken society. And in many instances the concept of community may not exist in the traditional sense. “Big Society” on a village level may work, but would it work in an inner-city housing estate?
Past Examples and Probable Solutions
Germany faced similar problems the UK faces between 2000 and 2007. The nation had accumulated debts through its generous social system, whilst its economy was stagnant, and over 35% of the population received some type of payment from the state. The German government had either to cut back or raise taxes.
A defacto form of “Big Society” materialized after sharp cuts in unemployment benefits, and an implementation of a means tested benefit system. The unemployed had to work for an extra 1 euro an hour, on community schemes which were often the former jobs of government employees.
Unemployed Germans “volunteered” to sweep their streets, and maintain dilapidated public buildings and parks for 20 hours a week in order to receive a decreased benefits.
Perhaps the German example could help communities and charities find the people to run the services they are encouraged to take over- from the ranks of the unemployed. This in turn could give people valuable work experience, and help them train for a suitable job.
However their is a flip-side to the German example- Many middle income Germans saved more and spent less, whilst the unemployed opted to work in a low paid job, rather than face remaining on benefits. The Government saved billions of euros, but still raised indirect taxes- and in 2008 took on more debt by bailing out failed German banks.
Another solution is to increase the retirement age, and whoever is unemployed and close to retirement, could assist in running these services, and In some cases train other volunteers- in return for the benefits they receive plus an extra stipend from the charity.
Big society has advantages and disadvantages. Much depends on how the public is encouraged to volunteer, and how these community organizations are initially financed. The big question is whether a society accustomed to a social safety net, could change, and embrace an idea which has already created a very cynical response.