Monday, 14 February 2011

The Prime Minister, The Big Society & Me.

As I watched Prime Minister, David Cameron, answer questions on The Big Society as a member of a select audience in Somerset House, London this morning, I couldn't help thinking there was an obvious flaw in his plan.

Put simply Cameron wants to give people the power to take control of their lives. But he's devolving Big Government power to small Government Power. That means placing the hands of all the power to Local Government.

He acknowledges that Local Government is one of the major stumbling blocks for people to improve their lot, so why do this?

Surely, to give the power to the people, means giving them the power to immediately hold Local Government to account. Not at elections but in the moment when it's needed.

If you've been following my plight over the past 18 months you'll know that currently this is not possible.

My experiences with Lambeth Council taught me three things.

Firstly, that inertia is encouraged and forms the first part of defense for the council not doing anything (layers of complaints system that are designed to achieve absolutely nothing).

Secondly, that nobody in the council has overall responsibility, no one person can make a decision and enforce it. Not, it would seem, even the leader of the council (in my case Steve Reed).

Thirdly and most importantly, nobody has a clue how local government is run.

For example It would be reasonable, as a voter to assume your local MP would have more sway when trying to sort out constituents problems than local Councillors, but you'd be wrong.

When David Cameron was asked to intervene on Riven Vincent's behalf (the woman threatening to put her disabled child into care because her council were reducing her respite care), the best he could offer was to write to the Council and hope they did the right thing.

If the Prime Minister of the UK can only write and ask? What the hell can the people do then?

And there it is, the core problem with The Big Society. If you want to give the people the power you have to remove the inertia of local government.

Cameron believes that transparency will help to achieve this. Forcing the councils to publish online, everything from salaries to expenditure. Whilst knowing how much your local council is spending on bonding days and team building trips to the Bahamas is important. It all becomes meaningless if you can't do anything about it.

Ask most people who their local MP is, they'll probably have some notion, but ask them for the names of their local councillors and most will give you the look of a bemused bulldog.

Which councillor did you last vote for in the local elections? Did you meet them? Did they have a manifesto? Are they any good?

Nobody knows.

We all deal with Big Government, we know who they are and should know what they represent.

But local Government is a world unknown to most and one that now, under Cameron, is being given more power.

But without being able to take your Council to account, not through a long winded complaints procedure but through simple common sense, nothings going to be achieved.

Take Riven Vincent for example, it is blindingly obvious to everybody if her child is taken into care, it will cost the council considerably more than the cost of increasing her respite care. So why weren't we, as the people, able to enforce that?

Trying to get British society to buy into real change and take on the responsibility of governing our own destinies under the banner of The Big Society will be lost unless we are truly given the power.

And I for one, want to be one of the driving forces for accomplishing that goal.

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