Behind the Conservative’s ‘Big Society, Not Big Government’ 2010 election campaign was the premise that we could look after ourselves better than the state could. Much emphasis was placed on the power of civil society, and this has since been reflected in the Coalition government’s decision making. One aspect of this has been the continued delegation of public service provision to third sector organisations, but as The Big Society Audit 2013 published yesterday by Civil Exchange points out, it is large private sector companies who now dominate public service outsourcing. Social enterprise and other forms of third sector activity have been promoted – particularly in the health care field, where professionals have been encouraged to spin-out social enterprises from the NHS – but in some senses, the greater responsibility accruing to the third sector is arising not through contracting, as in the New Labour years, but rather as cuts in local authority services and benefits coupled with rising demand leave more work for non-statutory organisations to pick up.
One of the concerns that has long been held about relying on third sector organisations to provide public services is around the mismatch between needs and provision: social needs and third sector activity are both unevenly distributed geographically, and these distributions don’t match each other. Jennifer Wolch’s work on the Shadow State drew attention to this in 1990, as did the Wolfenden Report in 1978, but it is a premise that arguably underlay the very foundation of the state welfare and a redistributive taxation and benefits systems. So as the current government continues to roll back the welfare state, being aware of what lies beneath (and where) in terms of a third sector ‘safety net’ should be a pressing concern.
Research by David Clifford of the Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC) suggests that in the UK the number of local voluntary sector organisations per head is considerably higher in less deprived areas (1.6 organisations per 1000 population) than in more deprived areas (0.6 per 1000). However, when subsectors of voluntary sector activity are considered the patterns become more complex. While educational, cultural and leisure organisations are more prevalent in less deprived areas, this is reversed for organisations in the field of economic wellbeing. The paper points out that although in general less deprived areas have more organisations delivering public services than more deprived areas, when we look at the most deprived areas of all, the numbers increase again. So the situation is not clear cut.
One of the concerns voiced during the New Labour era was that contracting out public services to the third sector was a ‘Trojan horse’ for privatisation or worse, the dismantling of the welfare state. This may or may not have been the political intention, but public funding to the third sector increased significantly under New Labour. According to TSRC’s analysis of the 2008 National Survey of Third Sector Organisations, voluntary organisations in the most deprived parts of the country were nearly 4 times as likely to report that the public sector was their main source of income than those in the least deprived areas. This suggests that governmental resources were at least being allocated in such a way as to alleviate rather than exacerbate spatial inequalities. But that was then: this is now, and the legacy of that scenario is that with local governments forced to make major budget cuts, many of these organisations in deprived areas are now facing resource crises, coupled with escalating social needs. Thus not only are individuals in deprived communities disproportionately affected by austerity measures, but the organisations seeking to help are themselves increasingly vulnerable. Indeed, The Big Society Audit notes that ‘The Big Society is also a deeply divided one, with cuts in public services hitting disabled and people living in poverty the hardest and trust – the glue that brings the Big Society together – failing to bind disadvantaged communities.’
But how has this situation arisen?
The decoupling of welfare and justice may have something to do with it. Addressing the Church Urban Fund’s recent Tackling Poverty Together conference, Archbishop Justin Welby argued that seeking the welfare – flourishing – of our cities and the people within them cannot be separated from the pursuit of justice. Similarly, the geographer David M. Smith, writes of justice as the ‘missing dimension’ that is required to rebalance needs for care with appropriate provision of it. There is much to be grateful for in terms of the living conditions that most of us in this country enjoy, and yes, to some extent people can look after each other, but we don’t live in a ubiquitously ‘big’ society, whatever that might mean. There are communities within the UK that have been economically and socially marginalised for decades while others have prospered: these will be amongst the hardest hit by government cuts which are in turn likely to necessitate greater dependence on voluntarism and ‘making do’. All of this begs the question: why are we not making more fuss about it?