The results of David Cameron’s “Big Society” experiment are in — and it would be a very foolish Australian government that followed in his footsteps.

“Big Society” was sold to the UK public with the promise of scaling back the role of government in the delivery of public services and filling the void with increased volunteerism, outsourcing and social enterprise. This was supposed to give the public more of what they want and provide equality of opportunity and a better life for all.

In fact, the opposite has occurred. The gap between rich and poor has widened and services have been cut across the country. The services that remain are increasingly delivered by large private organisations at a lower standard than when they remained under government control

Under the banner of “Big Society”, Cameron’s government has introduced deep cuts in public sector spending on services, resulting in poor outcomes on several social indicators. Despite the rhetoric, spending on community services received the biggest cuts. Social housing spending was cut by a whopping 52% over the last two years, which undoubtedly contributed to the 14% increase in the number of people registered as homeless since the Coalition came to power. The 35% reduction in spending on “religious and community services” was another blow to charity groups already under financial strain as a result of the government’s processes for contracting for services. Both moves flew in the face of Cameron’s assurances that charities would be given an expanded role in his Big Society.

Cuts in spending on mental health services has reduced the number of mental health hospital beds, leading to increased relapse and readmission rates at a time when financial pressures are driving an increase in mental health issues. As a result of this, and the reduced ability to manage people with mental illness in the community due to cuts to community services spending, the number of people detained under the Mental Health Act grew by 5% in the last year to the highest level ever recorded.

“With 60% of the population on weekly incomes either lower than or equal to their weekly expenses, it’s no surprise ‘Big Society’ is losing favour …”

With 60% of the population on weekly incomes either lower than or equal to their weekly expenses, it’s no surprise “Big Society” is losing favour among the public and some of its most fervent supporters. One survey found only 9% of the UK population believed the flagship policy would do what it claimed. Philip Blond, who first proposed the philosophy upon which “Big Society” is based, has distanced himself from the party and the flagship policy.

Despite the policy’s failure to win the hearts and minds of the UK public, the discovery of links between public expenditure cuts and worsening recessions, and the negative impacts on social indicators, there is evidence Blond’s ideas have also found fertile ground in the minds of senior Liberal Party members. Blond visited Australia last year with the express purpose of “advising Tony Abbott of Coalition policy”. During his stay he held private meetings with members of the opposition frontbench, including the Opposition Leader. Recent statements by Abbot such as “securing our future depends more on strong citizens than on big government” share much in common with the rhetoric used when “Big Society” was introduced in the UK.

Liberal Party support for the ideals isn’t surprising. Deficit reduction is a strong campaigning point for them, but they must contend with a public wary of service cuts and privatisation. At the state level this can be seen in the results of commissions of audit — Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria have all sought advice from audit commissions on how to best reduce their deficits.

The final version of the Victorian report has not been released; The Australian reported that it “borrows from the ‘big society’ plans of David Cameron’s government in Britain”. The NSW report similarly reflects this thinking with two of the six reform themes listed as “devolution” and “partnerships and outsourcing”, which echo Cameron’s rhetoric of “community control” and “any willing provider”.

While decentralisation and the involvement of community groups in public services can both have positive outcomes, expecting such reforms to compensate for massive public services funding cuts is unrealistic. Experience in the UK is that the cuts only damage the community groups that are expected to fill the gap.

It’s tempting for the Liberal Party to present rapid and significant service cuts as a means to empower communities and give the public “more of what they want”, but as Cameron experienced, the public will rightly smell a rat.

*Cameron Elliott’s Centre for Policy Development paper — Whatever happened to the big society? — was released this week

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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