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Monday, 17 January 2011

The "Big Society"

At a recent meeting of the ACEVO Faith Special Interest Group, which I chaired, Andrew Stunell MP, Minister at the Department of Communities and Local Government, spoke about faith-based organisations, the “Big Society” and cuts.

The new Coalition Government has made the promotion of the “Big Society” one of its key planks of policy. To most people the phrase was, and remains, unclear although the idea is now taking structural form in terms of practical proposals. Faith groups are seen by Government as important players in the “Big Society”. I therefore think that Unitarians should have something to contribute to its development.

What does the “Big Society” mean? It is an intriguing phrase. The “Big Society” idea seems to be that local communities should develop their own solutions to local problems rather than rely upon Westminster. This, of course, implies that local communities have the capacity to self organise. Mr Stunell recognised that some will certainly be able to do so as they already have a vigorous local civil society; community groups, environmental groups, sports clubs etc. Other areas, particularly in the inner cities and outer council estates, have few organisations and a smaller group of activists. They may struggle to complete for scarce Government and other resources and there is a danger that the poor will get poorer.

The churches are often the only institution remaining in some of these areas with a range of social and support services. They also have large under-used buildings in good central locations. These could be developed as promoted by One Church 100 Uses. The Government recognises this contribution and has been promoting involvement with an open door policy to church leaders.

The impact of the substantial cuts in Government spending has seen the “Big Society” presented as some form of fig leaf. Andrew Stunell was challenged by those working in frontline faith based organisations. They presented evidence that reductions in spending, especially by local government, will impact adversely on the most marginalised sections of our community; the poor, travellers and asylum-seekers. If statutory services are further squeezed it should not be taken for granted that the Churches and other voluntary agencies can pick up the pieces. It is also important to stress that volunteers are not “free"; to be truly effective they need professional support.

Unitarians should respond positively to the “Big Society” although we may feel uncomfortable with the tag. Instinctively. I feel we don’t like “Big” anything; “Big Government”, “Big Church” etc.

In practical terms therefore I would suggest that all Unitarians should reflect on their own community involvement both individually and collectively. Let us build upon our traditions of social involvement. Churches and Chapels should look to see how far they are embedded in their local community and ask themselves do they know what problems are faced by local people and if they can help. Many do already, as I see when I read Newsletters and talk to people. Even if numbers are small and aged we can always do something. There is ample scope to work with other agencies and other faith groups to build the “Big Society” as we want it.

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