David Cameron’s flagship ‘Big Society’ project has been subject to much debate since its inception a few years ago, both around what it actually is, and the nature of its true agenda. A few commentators believe the Big Society represents a qualitative shift in political ideology; others take the view that it is primarily a tool to justify austerity measures.
It is often linked to the Localism Act, in which housing choices have been effectively weakened for some groups of people. For example, it has furnished local authorities with the power to reduce the security of tenure within their social housing stock, and homelessness services are no longer required to offer a social tenancy to accepted homeless households. Despite any underlying motivation the government may have, the Big Society, it is generally agreed, seems to be based on an idea that communities must re-capture what they once (supposedly) had. But do neighbours share interests that they collectively wish to defend? And do neighbourhoods, in the popularly defined sense, even exist in an era of widened boundaries created as a result of developments such as the internet and increased geographic mobility?
For my PhD project I am researching how housing policy is implemented on the frontline of statutory homelessness services; within this I wanted to explore what the Big Society meant for employees who deliver central policy objectives to those who face losing their home. When asked to describe what the Big Society was practitioner responses ranged from bewilderment, cynicism, humour, and in some cases, even anger. A significant minority were unsure what the Big Society was, and in the absence of certainty most referred to general austerity or attitudinal elements, rather than any particular community initiatives. Nearly all homelessness officers interviewed believed it to be just another rhetorical device, its primary aim being to allow the government to remove itself, both emotionally and financially, from the welfare state. The idea of mucking in, and ‘being in it together’, was translated into individual responsibility and accountability, even if a household became homeless due to circumstances outside of their control.
Opinion seemed to be split between those who believed the coalition were doing what was necessary, and those who felt they were shirking responsibility. Some suggested that the Big Society was ‘a kick up the backside’ to those who chose to ‘languish’ on state benefits; others suggested they were the victims of a harsh agenda. Many felt that Cameron was misguided in his attempts to persuade us that we could recapture a bygone era, as it probably never existed in the first place. So what does this mean for those who seek help due to housing difficulty?
The general consensus is that the Big Society does not include those who find themselves in such a vulnerable position; they are on the outside looking in, policy is something that happens to them. Because the Big Society is linked to austerity its existence can be detected when welfare benefits are reduced, disability benefits are taken away, and homes are lost because affected households can no longer afford to be there; casualties of the war on the welfare state. The general consensus was that nobody shouts for the homeless, they become another rising statistic, seen but not heard. This is disappointing, as surely those who find themselves in such desperate circumstances stand to benefit the most from a flagship project which lays its stated foundation on philanthropic principles. But it seems this will require local communities to help those affected by the harsh austerity measures the Big Society, at least as far as statutory homelessness services are concerned, is inextricably linked with.
But as Taylor-Gooby (2012) argues, philanthropy cannot be relied upon to address inequality in society, as in itself it is unlikely to focus on those who may need the most help, such as those affected by welfare retrenchment. In other words the Big Society will not equate to equity, and cannot be left to its own devices to perform a redistributive role. He believes that state involvement must be viewed as an inevitability, and moreover, that reliance on ‘civil society’ to look after citizens has the potential to widen inequalities for particular groups. It seems that a reliance on local action is difficult, as it cannot perhaps view the bigger picture of a fair society, and by definition involves itself in localised decision making, who says what is important? And will that importance be determined by self interest? If not, then what or who will determine who gains and who loses? One concern I have is that it seems to return the causes of homelessness to the blaming of the individual, whereby the state should not be held accountable for the misfortunes that those at threat of losing their home face. At times it seems like the Big Society is viewed as encompassing current social policy, yet simultaneously people seem to question whether it even exists. Perhaps this is both its power and its weakness, as its loose definition (much like many political ideologies) means it can represent different things to different people, which may in turn be dependent on their outlook. So perhaps if those who deliver homelessness policy view the Big Society project as framing austerity, and the localist agenda, then this in turn becomes what the Big Society represents to those at threat of homelessness. I would argue that this will remain so for the foreseeable future without a more coherent directive from the centre.
Sarah Alden is a PhD researcher based at the University of Sheffield. Her study adopts an analytical approach to investigate the delivery of statutory homelessness services, with specific reference to older people. The research is guided by her direct experience of delivering homelessness strategies in the statutory sphere, and challenging those decisions in the third sector when employed by the Legal Service Commission.
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