We already know that, for deprived communities, recession bites deeper and lasts longer. And we also know that about 5% of poor communities – come boom or bust – never manage to fight free of recession. At the time of writing, cuts are being reported from deprived neighbourhoods, not just of mainstream services but also of schemes delivered via voluntary organisations – keep fit, healthy eating – that might be expected to help such communities weather a recession.
What can Big Society policies offer such places? "It takes two to build that Big Society," said David Cameron closing the Conservative Party conference. "We'll reform public services, we'll devolve power, but you step forward to seize the opportunity."
JRF's neighbourhood programme has shown that some strong neighbourhood bodies in deprived areas – using a mix of funding as well as generating some of their own income – can deliver a range of services very effectively - for example training, job search, debt advice, youth work, and healthy living. But that research also shows that such bodies are often vulnerable to funding cuts, constant changes in the funding regimes of donors, lack of support from statutory partners and in some cases a dearth of the hard skills needed to keep such bodies afloat.
The initial launch of the Big Society idea before the election included plans for 5,000 community workers, citing the example of Alinsky-style community organising in the US. This could actually be very good news for deprived communities: Saul Alinsky, all his life, was moved to incandescent rage by social injustice – one of the things that made him such an effective and uncompromising organiser. A story circulating more recently is that the new community workers are to set up or encourage voluntary bodies to provide services that government can no longer afford. No harm in this perhaps if services, that would otherwise be lost, can be saved. And the Prime Minister said in his speech that "The Big Society is not about creating cover for cuts." But can this idea take root, or have an impact, in our poorer neighbourhoods?
For every deprived neighbourhood that can boast a strong, multi-purpose organisation that has stood the test of time, there are probably another 10 that can't. After all, it's not every neighbourhood that has the courage, energy or even the desire to run such a body. In such cases, partnership with other local players is crucial to avoid communities being ignored or allowed to decline further. Encouraging partnership requires skill, time, and the ability to win the trust not just of residents but also of professionals. These skills are of course already much in evidence – in the community, voluntary and the statutory sectors – although, many would argue, not yet to the extent required to tackle conditions in all the UK’s most hard pressed communities.
So, will Big Society's proposed Bank, community workers, or Community First fund be able to link up to good work already in place? Will these initiatives be able to direct support to where the needs are greatest? Will they have the time and commitment to understand and support work in poorer communities? Or will they focus their efforts on other bodies which, however good, are not really engaged at the sharp end?