Keeping going in a ‘Big Society’?

The following blog post originally appeared here on David Floyd’s blog Beanbags and Bullsh!t.  We’re reblogging it here because it speaks about one of the inherent tensions present in The New Mental Health: The difference between people solving their own problems because they have to and solving their own problems because they choose to and the small ‘P’ political implications of this.


Public spending cuts lead to cuts in public services. Not a groundbreaking revelation but there’s a danger that hype-laden initiatives such as Big Society Capital and Social Impact Bonds serve as tediously over-reported distractions from the important day-to-day issues faced by millions of people who have been using public services and now find that those services are no longer there.

Whether or not we chose to use the term Big Society, the current economic climate is causing us to think differently about (formerly) publically-funded services and our relationships to them. This report, in central London local newspaper West End Extra, looks at the reaction of service users and carers to the closure of Westminster Centre for Independent Living, a centre providing activities for deaf and disabled people in the City of Westminster.

The initial paragraphs of article tell a story that has potentially significant implications if replicated across the country:

Carers have been forced to set up a do-it-yourself-style day centre for some of Westminster’s most vulnerable people. The Centre for Independent Living in Paddington, which offers activities for deaf and wheelchair-bound residents, will close at the end of this month as part of a shake-up of social care. People with disabilities who have been fighting the closure now plan to club together to stage regular art and cookery classes at another venue nearby.”

It’s not being needlessly pedantic to point out that the word ‘forced’, although it adds bite to the opening sentence of a news story, is critically inaccurate. The disabled people and carers involved in the SOS Westminster campaign group haven’t been forced to do anything. They’re making a conscious choice to look for a new local venue to carry on delivering some of the activities that were previously available in their centre, I imagine primarily on voluntary basis.

The fact that the group is looking for a new venue doesn’t mean that they’re happy about or have accepted Westminster Council’s decision to withdraw funding from the centre but – given that it is unlikely they’ll be able to reverse the decision in the short term – they’re offering a pragmatic response to the situation that will mean service users end up with something rather than nothing.

If the group find their venue and keep some services running, this is an effective (if not simple) example of people doing things for themselves. This is potentially one of the most important elements of the Big Society/what happens when the state’s no longer there (delete according to political taste). It’s not about do-gooding altruism, it’s about community self-help. Unfortunately, for the Big Society hype brigade, this kind of activity doesn’t involve exciting new financial instruments or game-changing websites that are a bit like Facebook.

Community self-help is about working hard and believing in what you’re doing. What it isn’t is a direct replacement for state-funding services. Aside from the specific case in this report, which I only know about from reading the report, the paid staff of state-funded service in the voluntary sector usually work very hard for not very much money. While there will be a tiny number of exceptions, it will not usually be possible (or desirable) for volunteers to maintain professional services for free.

The challenge that the SOS Westminster group (if they manage to find a venue) and others in a similar position face is to do what they can do with the human resources available, while keeping enough people engaged and actively involved to make it sustainable. A big danger is that, while publicly-funded services are often accused of burning through money, unfunded community activity can burn through people.

Local government (in particular), along with other public sector agencies such as (bits of) the NHS can help create a climate where this kind of community activity has the best possible chance of success. Part of that may be providing groups with relatively small amounts of funding without piling on unnecessary bureaucracy but it’s also (as with Westminster social services in this report) helping groups to find accommodation or providing useful contacts and information.

Depending on political persuasion, people have different views about what the state should and shouldn’t be paying for but all parties ought to be able to agree that – when the state isn’t paying – it can still play a role in helping things to happen.

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