thoughts on our urban future

Delivering the Big Society

Government's stages in realising the Big Society

The Big Society is the current UK Government’s approach from moving away from a big, centralised government approach to one that is more local and empowering. The heavy-handed approach by the UK government in the past has been stifling to local authorities, with limited responsibility beyond meeting targets forced upon them. It has, however, allowed a focused effort to promote concepts of renaissance and design in the urban agenda.

Nonetheless, significant improvements in the way local places choose to define themselves and provide local services could be envisioned with the ideas underpinning the Big Society. If done properly, many more places could be more successful, with local decisions determining priorities for their local places. This needs to be guided, ironically, with strong central support however. A shift of power without guidance, resources and support will allow places that have the capabilities to run with the Big Society, but many others will fail to deal with the new powers and responsibilities, especially during the pursuing years of cuts (in money and positions in local authorities).

So what messages are being sent by the government? In the latest news of actions to lead to the Big Society (as from the Localism Bill: an essential guide, HM Government), the first action is to “lift the burden of bureaucracy.” This means that “the first thing that Government should do is to stop stopping people from building the Big Society.” I was hardly aware that Government previously had constrained the efforts of communities to determine their futures. In fact, by stating this, the Government merely has to allow people to build the Big Society – in essence they need to do nothing – provide no resources, no enabling and no support. This is in fact what is necessary to guide people, in giving them the skills and know-how to control their own urban futures.

Further steps, such as “increase local control of public finance,” do not go far enough. Local communities need powers to tax, not merely powers to give greater abilities to spend. It seems in giving up control, the government is doing so in a convenient but less effective way than what is needed. If the Big Society is to be more than way to offset central control, costs and responsibilities, local towns and cities need abilities (and guidance and resources) to to lead themselves. This will take time, innovation and leadership. This is a huge opportunity to promote and enhance our towns and cities, however, during uncertain economic times, investment seeks structure and certainty. The Government needs to provide this certainty while shifting powers to make the most of the Big Society.

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  1. Okay, I’ll be contentious. My experience of local council administration and governance does not instill me with confidence that local control is at all the right way to go in the UK. I also fear that too much local thinking has a danger of ignoring the big picture or bigger picture because individual entities are more likely to be looking out for their best interests, not their neighbors. This is why I was particularly disappointed at the new government’s dissolution of the Regional Development Agencies in favor of Local Enterprise Partnerships giving over governmental responsibility to private companies. I strongly believe that private companies and local initiatives can not be trusted to ‘take a hit’ for the wider picture and are therefor not always a good idea, or at least need to exist under a structure of a much stronger central government, as you allude to in your post.

    Which is my second point, without that strong and clear central government guidance, I also can’t see how this system is going to work well. And my experience of guidance and policy from central government is that it is often conflicting or weak, or has no bite so is not necessarily enforced.

    Maybe the problem is they need to take a step back and do some house cleaning before implementing yet more strategies and proposals. If you don’t start from a strong base, you’re going to have a high percentage chance of failure now matter how good the intentions.


  1. Responding to Localism: Part 1 |

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