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We cannot afford the “big society”

David Cameron might claim that he wants to make it easier for people to volunteer but, with the publ

I went along to my local council's budget debate to see what effect the central government cuts were having. West Sussex County Council is enthusiastically Conservative and faces far lower budget reductions than other authorities that are more dependent on central government, as in the north. If it were possible to manage central government cuts by slashing "back-office costs" (or "people", as some of us call them) and without cutting front-line services, as Eric Pickles claims, it would be done here.

But it isn't possible. The Conservative council leader, Louise Goldsmith, described this as a "tsunami" of cuts: "It has been the worst of times for all of us. Nobody came on to this county council to make savings of such proportions." Council job losses were inevitable - 500 will go, including 400 permanent employees; 800 more will be transferred to the private sector. That's a fifth of the current staff. Michael Brown, West Sussex cabinet member for fin­ance, declared: "It is inconceivable that such a huge sum can be withdrawn [without] significant social consequences." Being Conservatives, they blamed Labour for all of it - but let's not have any more twaddle from Pickles about how local cuts won't affect front-line services.

People were gasping in the gallery as the scale of the job losses and reductions to services became clear. Rural buses, youth clubs, care for the elderly and mentally ill, schoolchildren's travel cards and potentially the school music service - young and old will be taking the hit (which means that everyone will be affected; if your mum loses her twice-weekly care visit or your child loses his bus pass, who do you think will pick up the slack?).

Wrong turning

It was a miserable day, made all the more miserable by the low level of much of the debate. Lib Dem and Tory councillors traded accusations over who had been least competent in the past, a grim reminder of the dead hand of our political system. The Liberal Democrats were scornful, warning of expensive consequences down the line from cuts that they deemed "ideologically driven". One called for the council to scrap its own "big society" fund, saying that it would end up being used to pay for the "pet projects" of councillors instead of supporting the vulnerable.

The council is cutting £79m over three years. The "Big West Sussex Society Fund", its own version of the big society bank (I told you they were keen), has £240,000. You don't need to be David Blanchflower to do the maths. Repeat that up and down the country and then magnify it when the cuts to central government services feed through and you see the problem with the big society. David Cameron says that he is not going to "back down from what I believe in just because of a few bad headlines". The trouble is, they're not just headlines.

The results of an early big society experiment in West Sussex are beginning to drift in. Last summer, the council announced the closure of several youth centres in an effort to save £2m. The cabinet member responsible said: "In those areas where we cannot provide, we will play a key role to enable communities and other partners to run youth services themselves, [which is] very much part of the big society agenda." Twelve centres were threatened with closure unless their communities could rescue them.

A report on the progress of the scheme has emerged. Of the 12, just two have made any substantial progress in six months and both are linking up with other voluntary organisations. Three have been unable to attract any support. The rest have received "expressions of interest" from the management committee or the parish council and there has been much "considering of options". But they have no obvious sources of funding and no clear path forward.

This is the big society writ large . . . or small. It takes money: someone has to pay for the running costs, insurance, petrol and the rest. Nobody who has seen, up close, the miserable impotence of families dependent on the state for survival - faced with condescension, bureaucracy and the proliferation of agencies and advisers - could question whether there isn't a better way of doing things. But this isn't it.

Gross point

On 14 February, Cameron said that he wanted to make it easier for people to volunteer. But people need to earn a living - they cannot do these jobs for free, unless they are wealthy. Or super-wealthy, in which case they will pay to work for free. It is an unfortunate coincidence that, just as the Prime Minister was urging everyone to volunteer, news leaked of a ball, attended by Cameron, which raised £500,000 for the Tories this month. There, five internships at City institutions were auctioned to Conservative donors for their children for £14,000. It sounds more like a very small, exclusive society than a big and inclusive one.

It isn't a coincidence that parish councils are mostly run by the wealthy elderly; they can afford the time to do it. Firing public-sector workers from whatever position they hold and then asking them to work for free in their communities is pretty gross politics.

The state cannot quite decide what volunteering is. If you're unemployed and claiming benefits and want to volunteer, you need permission from the jobcentre or you risk losing your benefits. If you're unemployed and vol­unteering but "doing what someone would normally be paid for", that doesn't count and the jobcentre docks your benefits. If you're unemployed and the jobcentre tells you to do what others would normally be paid for, that's a "work placement" - and you lose your benefits if you don't do it. If you're unemployed and do work that people used to get paid for but no longer do because the government has cut all the funding - running a library, say - that's the big society. Confused? So are they.

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The offshore City