Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Small (minded) society?

This guy and many others took over management of a local swimming pool and formed a charity to fund and run it.  They work very hard to raise quite a lot of money every year and have been rightly praised for their efforts.

In Big Society terms, they run a service on behalf of the council, which is therefore getting that service for free because of the charity’s efforts. However, it has decided to make things just that little more difficult for the charity by removing the rate relief the charity previously received.  This costs the charity an extra £1.6k a year.

Is this a damning indictment of the big society?  Well, not really.  It’s a probably idiotic and short-sighted move by the council.  £1600 seems a small price to pay for a free swimming pool in the community, the free hard work of the people who run it and the goodwill that supporting the effort would generate.  I can’t imagine what they were thinking.  Money needs to be saved and councils have a severely difficult gauntlet to run in the face of cuts largely beyond their control, but is saving pocket change really worth losing what seems like a great free service and turning everyone against big society style activities?

This might be a flaw in the Big Society idea.  District Councils seem mysterious, murky things.  I’d argue that most people probably don’t know what they can do if they don’t like their council.  And this process is dominated by party politics for reasons I’ve never quite been able to understand.

I still think the Big Society is right in principle.  One lunatic council doesn’t invalidate the idea.  Councils have to buy into the idea and they might have to be forced to buy into it, especially if this story is typical.

I think this story reinforces my earlier point.  The artefacts of the big society we’ve seen so far are mostly rhetoric. Will councils be punished or rewarded for big society friendliness or lack of it?  Nobody knows.  Is there a way to escalate complaints that small society thinking is hampering people’s efforts?  Nobody knows that either.

This topic frustrates me so much because:

1. I like the idea in principle, providing it’s about removing obstacles for people who want to do stuff in their community rather than saddling communities with burdens.

2. The discussion on it is oddly party politicised and hardly anyone can or will say anything sensible about it.  The idea is probably doomed like the poll tax was doomed; not necessarily because it was a bad idea but because people realised it was something they could complain about.  I’m not particularly defending the poll tax, by the way, I’m just saying that many of the people I knew who complained about it did because they didn’t want to pay it and thought they might be able to get away without doing so.  They were right about that, but I never quite understood the argument that it was automatically less fair than other taxes.  Nobody protests too much about VAT or income tax because you can’t get on with living your life if you don’t pay it.  I think that was the prime motivating force in the poll tax protests and – shamefully – riots.  But my point is that a failure – like this one – in doing Big Society isn’t necessarily a point scored against the idea or against the government.  It might be a bit of evidence that the idea might not work in practice, but not enough to form a conclusion yet.

3. We need assurances that efforts we make will be rewarded.  If I’m going to set up a charity to take control of a service or facility, then I want to be able to negotiate with the council or whoever to get breaks on things like tax over quite long periods of time, with guarantees that they won’t screw me.  I need to know I have the ear of the right person.

4. We need moar.  The idea is potentially good and some of the rhetoric is impressive, but the reason nobody is convinced is that there’s nothing to be convinced about yet, it’s all bullshit.  The NHS reforms ought to be the centre of the Big Society idea, but you don’t often hear them both in the same conversation.  Tell us how it’s all going to work.  I think that’s all we want.

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