In 2010, Britain’s new Conservative prime minister David Cameron set out a vision for the future. “It’s my hope — and my mission — that when people look back at this five, ten-year period from 2010, they’ll say: ‘In Britain they didn’t just pay down the deficit, they didn’t just balance the books, they didn’t just get the economy moving again, they did something really exciting in their society.’”
Needless to say, the first part didn’t go entirely to plan. But what of the second part, Cameron’s idea to foster a “Big Society” in which people “don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face” but “help themselves and their own communities”?
Some on the left were sceptical from the start, seeing the Big Society as rhetorical cover for public spending cuts. On the right, some now grumble that Britain has gone the opposite way. Since the government locked down the economy and paid people’s salaries in the pandemic in 2020, they reckon Britons have come to expect the state to solve every issue. “The government cannot do everything,” new prime minister Rishi Sunak stressed in an interview last year. “No government can fix every problem.”
It’s true that the Big Society didn’t really take off. A detailed academic study published last year found little support for the idea that local authority spending cuts prompted more people to step in with voluntary action or charitable giving. Nor was power devolved in a meaningful way to the community level.
But one element of Cameron’s vision has materialised: charities are much more involved in doing things once taken care of by the state. The government spends about £15bn in grants and contracts with the charity sector each year, according to Pro Bono Economics. While that is a small slice of public spending, some services are very dependent on charities. Between 2016 and 2020, for example, charities and other third-sector organisations won 69 per cent and 66 per cent of the total value of contracts for homelessness services and support for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
There is also more integration between charities and the state at ground level. In the course of reporting on the economy over the past decade, I have seen Citizens Advice workers embedded at GP surgeries and officials from the Department for Work and Pensions embedded at food banks. This can work well. Charities are often more connected to their local communities and more trusted by vulnerable people than the government is.
But increasingly charities are also providing people with basic necessities because the state safety net has become inadequate. Between April and September last year, for example, food banks in the Trussell Trust’s UK-wide network distributed 1.3mn food parcels, 52 per cent more than the same period in 2019.
The immediate problem of surging inflation has exacerbated the erosion of poorer people’s incomes thanks to stagnant wage growth and real-terms benefit cuts. The poorest fifth of households in Britain are more than 20 per cent poorer than their French and German equivalents, according to the Resolution Foundation. As Maddy Desforges, chief executive of the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action, has put it, the sector is increasingly “backfilling” for the state.
The problem with relying on the charity sector as the safety net beneath the safety net is that charities are now in trouble, too. Their incomes are being squeezed while costs and demand are on the up. A survey of almost 700 charities and community groups in November by Pro Bono Economics and Nottingham Trent University found that more than half were using their reserves to meet their operating costs. Almost one in five had reduced the level or number of services that they offer.
People want to help. According to Deedmob, a platform that pairs volunteers with opportunities in a number of countries, there is a growing mismatch in the UK between the number of people who want to volunteer and the number of openings available to them. Boudewijn Wijnands, Deedmob’s chief executive, says the UK and the Netherlands had similar levels of volunteer participation before the pandemic, but the UK has since fallen behind due to fewer openings.
“Organisations need lots of help, but paradoxically they’re too overwhelmed to organise it,” he tells me. The result is “a lot of potential social capital going to waste”.
Cameron used to talk a lot about fixing Britain’s “broken society”. But in this moment of crisis, society isn’t failing, government is.