The Rt Hon David Cameron MP
10 Downing Street
16 February 2016
Dear Mr Cameron
In July 2010, you made a speech about ‘the Big Society‘, describing it as your ‘great passion.’ This was, as I understand it, intended to empower communities, encourage people to take a more active role in their local life (mainly through volunteering) and generally transfer power downwards. Whatever its critics had to say and despite the fact that many of these things had long been happening anyway, the idea had some merit: not least it could, if pursued and presented properly, have assisted you in providing some kind of ideological framework for the looming financial cuts.
What has happened recently seems the polar opposite of this. Central government now controls the finances and thus every activity of local councils more tightly than ever.
In December, it was announced by our local council, West Berkshire, that severe cuts would be required as a result of reductions in central funding. The figures have got steadily higher: now about 20% of the budget will disappear. This will, you may or may not be aware, result in the loss of many public transport routes, many children’s centres, many disabled facilities and all but one of the libraries: one of which, in Hungerford, was only opened a few years ago.
For some reason this council seems to have been singled out for particularly savage treatment. Our local MP, Richard Benyon, has suggested that one of the measures used to calculate the central government grant, that concerning the number of elderly people in the area, is some ten years out of date. Perhaps this is being reviewed and corrected as I write.
What is so outrageous is that inadequate time has been given for the council and other groups to examine how these services could be run or funded in a different way. It’s not realistic to announce massive cuts in December and expect that by March the ‘Big Society’ will have swung into action and in every case have provided a socially cohesive, financially durable, locally relevant and fully compliant solution. Once gone, many of these services will be hard to revive (and will cost money to close). Worse still, these closures and curtailments will cause social and economic problems that future generations will have to deal with.
Meanwhile, for those who work in the defence industry, the City of London, as IT consultants for government projects or for a multinational company life seems to be carrying on as normal. ‘We’re all in it together’? I don’t think so.
We’ve heard very little of ‘The Big Society’ these last few years. Perhaps you are no longer passionate about it. However, a number of people are passionate about the services. As for the councillors and council officials, they have been turned into ‘weary, disillusioned puppets of government targets.’ Now, where have I heard that phrase before?
One thing all this has achieved is to mobilise public feeling in this area, little of it well-disposed to your government. I hope none of these people will forget come the next general election which party has been responsible for this and for the way in which it has been handled. I certainly won’t.
There is still time to do something about this. If you retain any shred of belief in the ability of local organisations to take more control of their lives, ensure that any cuts are staggered so as to give time for some other way of operating the services to be found. Not to do so would convince me and many others that there is a political agenda behind this at least as powerful as any financial policy; and that its intention – despite what you said in 2010 – is to further increase the power of Whitehall at the expense of the localities.
A final point: were I to live in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland there would be another tier of government which would, perhaps, be more responsive to local needs and which could mitigate some of the excesses of centralisation. However, I live in England, which I believe to be the only country in Europe without its own parliament. About 14% of the MPs in Westminster represent parties whose policies, due to a combination of our lop-sided devolution and even more lop-sided voting system, I got no chance to support or oppose at the election. This is clearly a debate for another day and I can’t pretend to be obsessed by it (as some are). None the less, it’s beyond argument that a vast amount of money which could be being used here has been and is being spent trying to impose, or encourage, or support, or what you will democracy in other parts of the world, with results that would probably not satisfy the kind of cost-benefit analysis used to determine the viability of projects closer to home. All in all, and despite the many things we have to be proud of, I’m increasingly unsure if the UK’s version of democracy and local autonomy is the ideal model for anyone else to emulate.
PS Since I wrote this, a number of things have happened (as you may have noticed). We have voted to leave the EU. David Cameron is no longer PM. The electorate did somewhat turn against the government, perhaps because of these policies, in the 2017 election; and we are, as a result, even more at the mercy of regional (and sectarian) parties than before. Local councils are being forced to make further spending cuts and a number of services have been lost. The financial power of Whitehall seems to be ever-increasing, as is the power and influence of (but not the tax receipts from) the plutocrats and multi-nationals. On the positive side, a number of threatened organisations (such as Hungerford Library) have managed to find an alternative way to survive, through CATs (Community Asset Transfers) and similar processes, although this would have been made far simpler if the funding cuts had been more gradual and matched by more information and support for the bodies that could take over these services. These anachronisms aside, I still stand by the sentiments I expressed in February 2016.