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Spending cuts will break Big Society, warns nef

The Government wants the Big Society to pick up the pieces left by its public spending cuts, but the scale and speed of the cuts leave civil society with an impossible job to do and not nearly enough support, claims independent think-tank nef (the new economics foundation). The result will be a poorer, more hard-pressed society, not a bigger one.

The report: Cutting It: The Big Society and the new austerity, published today at the RSA, Thursday 4 November 2010, provides the first analysis of the prospects for the Big Society in the context of the comprehensive spending review. It concludes that the success of the Big Society depends on Government revising its policies on public spending cuts to guarantee sufficient and sustained support for local government, community groups and third sector organisations.

“What we are seeing here is the end of the post war settlement”, said Anna Coote, Head of Social Policy at nef and author of the report. “The Big Society shifts responsibility away from democratic government to self-help, mutual aid, philanthropy, local enterprise and big business. The cuts mean there is a much heavier responsibility for dealing with more acute poverty, unemployment, distress and social conflict. It is madness to imagine that in these conditions civil society can fill the gaps left by a retreating state.”

The report argues that the Spending Review undermines the Government’s claim that ‘we are all in this together’. The cuts impose a heavier burden on networks and groups in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and reduce resources available to them. The conditions that make participation in the Big Society possible, and likely, are not equally distributed across society. Those who have more to start with will benefit the most.

 “There are serious concerns about accountability,” continued Anna Coote. “How do we knit together an indeterminate number of infinitely varied organisations into a clearly accountable framework? Where will the buck stop? When things go wrong, there is a grave risk that we shall only hear the voices of those who can shout loudest or whip up the most colourful media outrage.

“It’s time for change. We need to build a new, more sustainable well-being system fit for the 21st century. Stronger local communities and more direct involvement by citizens will provide the backbone of that new system – but we must not undermine the support systems already out there. The cuts and the Big Society are not the answer to the problems of today’s welfare state.”

nef is calling on Government to extend to the economy the central principle underpinning the Big Society – that power should be decentralised and people enabled to run their own affairs. This would give people more power to influence the way markets work and their impact on social justice.

nef proposes six key actions to make the best of the Big Society, including a clear goal of well-being for all, a gradual move towards a shorter paid working week, and more equal partnerships between providers and users of services.

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