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Is Big Society set for a showdown with the collision government?

Our Big Society briefing seminars are becoming something of a tour...with four done and four to go, before a notional summer break for a couple of weeks, before we kick off our autumn big society events....

Next up, Bradford, organised in partnership with JUST West Yorkshire and Yorkshire and the Humber Forum (they've dropped the ‘regional' from their name...in case you wondered!). I keep thinking it's going to get harder and harder to find news things to say about each event but I'm getting a very good sense of the changing mood out on the Big Society frontline.

Bradford was interesting, there was a lot of talk (and concern) about how the cuts were starting to impact on the voluntary and community sector. I'm increasingly taking that as read, which I ought not to as I guess it could appear as complacency, but it's omnipresent in discussions these days. As a stark reminder of how things are right now, we heard that one delegate had to send his apologies at the last minute because a meeting had been called at short notice at Bradford Council to discuss budgets (ie cuts) for supporting the VCS. No consultation. No agenda. Just be at the meeting and hold on to your hat.

What was interesting in Bradford was an undercurrent of growing resistance. People were down and despondent about the prospects, but if the sector is going to be decimated as a couple of people said, they are not going to go quietly. There was an admirable fighting spirit and discussion turned to how decisions could be challenged and how we can use equalities assessments as the basis of challenge and through public law. The much publicised case of Southall Black Sisters who took on Ealing Council in the courts and succeeded was mentioned.

While I can't help worrying that for every Southall Black Sisters success there are going to be 10 examples that end in demoralising defeat, we should not be deterred from fighting to save what we hold dear. After all, that is a hallmark of the voluntary and community sector in the UK. But we must recognise that, a bit like in planning, the system is set against us - for even if we gain a victory, we remain victorious only until the next decision, or the one after that, or the one after that. One failure however can be the end, forever. [nb in Planning, a development can be opposed successfully on numerous occasions, but the developers can keep coming back with new applications and it only takes one decision for the development to go ahead for whatever it was being protected to be gone, forever].

There is some justification for regarding the Big Society agenda as being quite politically distinct from the spending cuts, driven by different motives (on one hand cutting back the ‘inefficient state' and on the other giving citizens more of a say over their areas). At another moment in time this may have been easier to test, but with the cuts and Big Society emerging at the same time, it's impossible to know whether this is the case, or whether it's simply an agenda for cuts. In any event it's somewhat immaterial as the cuts are severely impacting on the voluntary and community sector's ability to take advantage of emerging opportunities.

A final thought....on arrival in Bradford, the receptionist (in all innocence) asked one of the arriving delegates whether they were there for the ‘collision government event'. Judging by the hardening mood in Bradford and elsewhere, I suspect that may be more accurate than we might think.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

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