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3 February 2011

Blow for Cameron as Liverpool pulls out of the “big society”

Liverpool council says the coalition’s cuts make the project unworkable.

By George Eaton

After the coalition’s “big society tsar” was embarrassingly forced to reduce his hours, here’s some more bad news for David Cameron’s pet project.

Liverpool City Council has pulled out of the initiative after it concluded that the coming cuts made its participation impossible. It is particularly embarrassing for Cameron because, Lenin-like, he selected Liverpool as one of the four “vanguard communities” that would be the “training grounds of this change”.

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The head of Liverpool council, Joe Anderson, has written a letter explaining the decision to Cameron and it’s worth quoting from at length. First, he says the government “has failed to deliver a single change that we have requested”.

Liverpool has been doing the “Big Society” for many years. We call it “working with our communities” and it is something we are very much committed to. We pride ourselves on our excellent working relationships with our community and voluntary sectors, and indeed have done our upmost to support these sectors – as they are crucial to the success of our city.

He then warns that the loss of £100m of area-based grants and a huge £141m reduction in council spending has put many voluntary and community groups at risk.

[T]heir ability to help us improve the quality of life for Liverpool residents has been seriously undermined by two government decisions. Firstly, the loss of over £100m of Area Based Grants to Liverpool has put many organisations’ very survival at risk. These funds, aimed at tackling deprivation, were widely utilised by the voluntary sector. Secondly, Liverpool’s extremely poor local government settlement means a huge £141m reduction in council spending over the next two years. This level of cuts will significantly impact on council services, including the funding of many of our voluntary and community groups.

How can the City Council support the Big Society and its aim to help communities do more for themselves when we will have to cut the lifeline to hundreds of these vital and worthwhile groups?

He concludes: “Liverpool City Council can no longer support the ‘Big Society’ initiative, as a direct consequence of your funding decisions.”

A

An equally powerful critique of the coalition’s approach comes from the television producer Phil Redmond (of Brookside and Hollyoaks fame). He told the Local Government Chronicle: “I went along with it all because I thought it would be a good way of getting things going, but it’s been impossible to get any traction because of the cuts – everyone is dealing with post-Spending Review trauma.”

Redmond had planned to lead a project to boost volunteering across Liverpool but was forced to put this on hold while National Museums Liverpool, which he chairs, deals with budget cuts of 15 per cent. He laments that “the big society has become subsumed by the cuts”.

A similar complaint has been made by “Red Tory” Philip Blond, who warned that the “drive for cuts and deficit reduction” was “running too fast” for the big society to flourish.

What makes these criticisms so wounding for Cameron is that they come from figures committed to the principles of the “big society”. Tory backbenchers who dismiss it as “BS” can safely be ignored, but figures such as Redmond and Blond cannot.