“Big society” is just an empty slogan

Picture of Sunshine coachBBC News - Big Society is my mission, says David Cameron

David Cameron gave a speech today in which he claimed that, while reducing the budget deficit was his duty, his so-called Big Society was his “passion” and that one part of this would be a “Big Society bank” to fund charitable projects. However, charity representatives are saying that his government’s spending cuts are forcing the reduction of existing voluntary activities, with charities making some workers redundant. The new “bank” will use £100m from dormant bank accounts and £200m from the Project Merlin deal to “support working capital projects approved by the government”.

What isn’t being discussed here is the matter of infrastructure. Voluntary means two things: work being done for nothing, and work being funded by people’s donations rather than from taxes. Given that the government is raising taxes, particularly VAT and fuel, while cutting public spending, which is likely to mean people being made redundant, the amount of money charities will be able to raise from people (other than the already very wealthy) is going to be more limited, and this will be more true for small, local projects.

As there will be more people out of work, there are likely to be more people available for voluntary activities. However, if the government cuts grants to local councils, and local councils can raise less money because there are fewer workers, the infrastructure the voluntary work relies on is not going to be there. Here in Kingston, for example, the council proposes to “cut £250,000 from its care budget by targeting services it has no legal duty to run”, which will mean closing four centres which provide services to the elderly and disabled, including two here in New Malden. If the council no longer provides these services, perhaps it will be left to volunteers or a charity — but where are they going to operate if the buildings have been sold off to property developers, as has been proposed for the centre here in New Malden? Once these buildings are sold and very likely demolished, they will not be coming back.

I’ve worked out of one of these centres, driving mentally disabled adults from their homes and care homes to that building and out to various leisure activities around south-west London. Now, work may be free, but vehicles aren’t (unless donated) and maintenance isn’t, and fuel certainly isn’t in the present climate, something the government is making worse by staging three duty increases in a few months at a time when the price of fuel has climbed to a record high, after a poor Christmas retail period when the country is just struggling to come out of a recession.

In short, voluntary work costs money, and if the government wants to take money out of our pockets and the general economy then there will be a whole lot less of it. It looks to me like nothing more than an empty slogan, intended to soften us up to the fact that we will have to pay the state more yet expect less of it, particularly if we very much need the services it provides.

Image source: ICTeachers.

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