The Big Society, first mooted by David Cameron in the run-up to 2010 election, seemed at the time to be a nebulous and fuzzy notion, designed to turn Britain back to the halcyon days of the 1930s. A time when people were polite to each other, had notions of community togetherness and had respect for the institutions of society. (It should also be noted that issues like diphtheria, mass unemployment and malnutrition coexisted with this rosy view!) Now, nine months into the new government big society has been relaunched for the second time - the first being in July 2010. As time goes on, the phrase itself is gaining traction even if what stands for doesn't. David Cameron has started to downgrade it to the "big society" recently rather than "Big Society". Empowering local people and communities to take power away from politicians and give it to the people is all well and good, but as with all plans, fine wordsmithery does not make up for ineffective implementation. The Fire and Rescue Service has been key in developing community engagement and empowerment over a number of years. How will the Big Society (BS - their acronym not mine) impact on the Service, and how can the influence of FRS impact on the plans for a big society?
According to the Cabinet Office, the government department with responsibility for translating the BS into policy and implementation (through the Office for Civil Society) suggests that three key parts to the big society agenda. The first is community empowerment by giving local councils and neighbourhoods power to make decisions in their area. As can be shown by the recent legal challenge to Eric Pickles' decision to change planning regulations, there will be significant resistance to many of the proposed changes. The second part of the agenda is to open up public services through reforms which enable charities and social enterprises private companies and employee owned cooperatives to compete with current providers to provide people with high quality public services. Finally, and this is the big trick, encouraging social action by individuals supported by community organisers within neighbourhoods. In an attempt to reduce youth dissent, the National Citizen Service is the name given to the scheme to bring 5,000 16-year-olds from different backgrounds together to make changes. In order to support the scheme, the Government has set a Big Society Bank to give social enterprises charities and voluntary organisations funding through which they can do good work. The capital for the bank will come from dormant savings accounts of individuals held within banks.
So what will be the impact of the BS on the FRS? Many will argue that the FRS is already an exemplar of big society. Working with the community to serve the community, the FRS can point out large numbers of projects that support the aims of a healthy, cohesive and vibrant community. Community engagement activities such as health and well-being activity (improving youth and adult fitness, weight loss and smoking cessation programmes, working with disadvantaged children to promote self worth and social responsibility and developing partnerships with voluntary sector organisations to reduce risk - fire, road safety, water safety - amongst those who are most vulnerable. Many services have formed charitable institutions which already take advantage of funding opportunities which enable them to raise funds to carry out good works through the use of volunteers and community activists. And, if one was to look across the breadth of our society for exemplar is of community spirited individuals coming together for the benefit of their neighbourhoods that one needs to look no further than the extensive network of Retained Duty System staff employed by the FRS.
With the Sword of Damocles no longer hanging over the head of the FRS, but about to hack off one or more limbs of the service, the opportunity to take advantage of some of the items offered through the big society agenda should be taken. Francis Maude, the Minister charged with delivering the big society indicated in a recent Radio 4 interview that in some instances where community facilities were being closed down, the community itself could bid for facilities and run them themselves. Interestingly, one of the facilities he mentioned that could be taken over would be a fire station. While sounding plausible in concept, the reality is far from simple. As shown last year when a Home Counties District Council attempted (and failed) to create its own Fire and Rescue Service by disembowelling a Combined Fire and Rescue Authority, setting up an independent service and at a time when many (Devon and Somerset and Dorset, Cumbria Northumberland etc) are combining on the grounds of operational and financial efficiency, returning to the days of 1,500 fire brigades (pre 1939-style) seems incredible. To follow the thought process to its logical conclusion, a position where each little "Walmington on Sea" has its own Fire brigade, paid for, crewed, and maintained by the local community seem slightly far-fetched and impracticable. Notwithstanding the fact that RDF stations are the most cost-effective way of providing fire cover and be the part of the service most likely to survive the cuts, there is a possibility that if severe enough communities may end up attempting to buy their own local stations. Given the recent experience of Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service in their attempts to close down redundant RDS stations, a fight with a community, any community, over such a closure will demand energy and resources from the service it can ill afford to fritter away at any time in the mind in the current climate.
Despite the cynicism that surrounds the Big Society, this is a strategy upon which David Cameron has set his own personal stamp. There are few Liberal Democrats Bullet catchers associated with this one. There are many aims that the FRS have in common with the biggest society objectives. The first is that if successful, BS will see community cohesion improved. Where communities are responsible for their own well-being there is a tendency for them to stick together and after each other. That may be issues about leadership within the community, it's applicability in large urban areas without defined communities and other sociological factors, but the fact communities will live and work together, rather than merely co-exist, will make them more robust. Increased use of voluntary services and social enterprises may deliver cheaper services for the community but as anyone who works regularly with volunteers knows, reliability can be fleeting. Once public services are set aside for voluntary agency, it is very difficult to obtain funding for restarting a service.
Active citizenship, the moral and personal obligation an individual feels to support the community is something that the FRS has always supported. From good neighbour campaigns to volunteering to undertake prevention based activities in the community, the socially responsible citizen is something the service has been looking for and anything which encourages this sense of duty should be supported. Another "big ticket statement", that of locally set budget expenditure against sounds in theory a good thing but one of the benefits of living within a democracy is that we vote as representatives people who can take a wider view than what happens in the local neighbourhood (at least that the theory). Very often in a society without leadership he /she who shouts loudest very often gets heard and gets the money. This is a fact of life and will be a problem for community based budgeting. Similarly, there is also the danger that it becomes a single issue which can deflect from delivering benefits for the greater good, or when an inappropriate individual becomes the unelected spokesperson for community.
Whether the big society becomes a reality or flounders as a result of the increasing unpopularity of the government as cuts in public services, pension hikes and pay freezes, only time will tell. Unfortunately, recent indicators including voting polls and a fragmenting liberal Democrat party (as witnessed by the March conference in Scotland) would seem to tell a different tale. Whether the coalition (by which I mean the parties themselves and not David Cameron and Nick Clegg) can survive the external and internal tensions or not, remains uncertain. Fewer and fewer people claim to believe that "we're all in it together", and this could have a devastating impact on the policy which relies on individual and collective altruism to work. If the big society does fail to ignite the enthusiasm of the community, there will be only one recourse left to politicians of any persuasion that is the desperate invoking of the "Dunkirk and Blitz Spirit".