Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Do-it-yourself policing and garbage cleanup in Britain?

The "big society" initiative, which the new British prime minister David Cameron first came up with during the campaign, has gained sudden prominence in recent weeks. Apparently, it wasn't just a feel-good campaign slogan. The plan, which would devolve local services to voluntary citizens initiatives, managed to take the British media by surprise when it was officially unveiled last week. The plan would entail much more action and restructuring than anyone had expected out of what was thought to be simply campaign rhetoric, and has serious implications for how the UK may organise itself in the future.

"So what's this now," the media is asking, "big society is actually a real thing?" It would be as if Barack Obama, after becoming presient, had set up a "Hope Task Force" in order to monitor and manage the levels of hope in local communities. The media didn't know what to make of it at first, but within days the consensus seems to be that this scheme is merely a cover-up for the massive budget cuts that are about to be made on local community services. Or is it?

The initiative will start with four prototype “big society communities” – Liverpool, Eden Valley, Windos and Maidenhead and Sutton. In these places, local citizens are to be given more power over local council spending. Decision-making will be turned over to “ordinary people”, though it has not yet been outlined how those ordinary people will be selected. The plans will be backed by a small “big society bank,” funded by government expropriation of dormant bank accounts.

Essentially the idea is this – local people are better suited to run local institutions. So the conservatives have come up with the idea of local citizens accompanying police officers on the beat in order to give them tips (no doubt these ‘average Joe’ partners will become necessary once the Tories cut half the police force, critics have sneered). Garbage collection could, for example, be transferred over from a government function to a ‘citizen’s collaboration’, a combination of private enterprise and citizen volunteerism.

For a country that has such a dramatically centralised government, this is a radical concept. Moving from the US to the UK, one of the things that shocked me the most is the almost non-existence of regional government. Almost everything is run centrally from London, with local town councils responsible only for basic municipal things like garbage collection, street lights, etc. There are no governments between the national one and the local town councils. The exception is now Scotland, which got its own devolved regional parliament about a decade ago. But that has left Scotland with a regional government while the areas of England still have none. Coming from a federal country where so much is run by individual states (schools, taxes, roads, insurance, etcetera) this always seemed very bizarre to me.

So is Cameron’s plan to further devolve authority in the UK and divide England up into regional governments that would correspond to the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales? It doesn’t appear so. In fact the “big society” doesn’t seem to have any cohesive plan to reorganise Britain or create new local government institutions. Instead, it would appear the government wants to recruit local citizens to fill the vacuum after it cuts agencies and services, and these local volunteers are expected to do this out of the goodness of their own heart.

So far, the concept of the "big society" has gone down with a loud thud across the UK. Labour has accused the Tories of "cynically attempting to dignify its cuts agenda, by dressing up the withdrawal of support with the language of reinvigorating civic society". The unions have reacted with bemused fury, with Unite calling the policy “smoke and mirrors for an avalanche of privatisation under the Tories." While UNISON accused the government of “simply washing its hands of providing decent public services and using volunteers as a cut-price alternative. Public services must be based on the certainty that they are there when you need them, not when a volunteer can be found to help you.”

Even the right-leaning papers haven’t been very receptive. The conservative-leaning Telegraph wrot of the policy, "the sink or swim society is upon us, and woe betide the poor, the frail, the old, the sick and the dependent" A piece in The Times wrote, “it isn't hard to see what will happen with all these Big Society initiatives. It's all very well to have the bright idea of the locals running their own bus route. The trouble is that running a bus route is a professional job, not for a group of local enthusiasts. How many bets that five years down the line, the enthusiasm has run out and there is no more bus route.”

It remains to be seen whether the Big Society is an actual rethinking about how local government operates in the UK or whether it is just smoke and mirrors to distract people from the brutal cuts the Conservatives are making in public spending. But either way the fact remains – the lack of local government powers, particularly in England, remains a festering wound in the UK. Wouldn’t it be nice if the “big society” were actually an honest attempt to do something about that. Who knows, maybe it is.

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