Big Society still means nothing to me.


I have spent today at a structured think tanky workshop thingy looking at local society with a clear emphasis on localism and the ‘Big Society. It was interesting to do this the day after Liverpool stopped being a Vanguard authority for Big Society and lot’s of people wanted to know my opinion.

I have no problem with Liverpool’s decision because after really trying to understand what it means – I don’t. I am certainly none the wiser after listening to Nat Wei today. The idea lacks clarity, lacks precision and is largely being promoted by people who have never had to deliver anything except words. It is being done at a time when we are unable to concentrate on these matters because of the massive financial problems that we face inside our sector.

So am I condemning ‘Big Society?’ No I still warmly welcome it as a direction not a programme as a statement and not a policy. If it means anything it means the transfer of power to and through councils to communities. I have been trying to achieve that for the past 40+ years as a Liberal (Democrat) activist. Now I am being empowered to a higher level than for many years not by waffle by think tanks but by Bills which when enacted will give a fundamental transfer of power away from Whitehall Warriors.

I know that many people want to sneer at the Localism Bill for all the bits and pieces (100+) that the Secretary of State will be able to direct in a perverted sort of ‘guided localism. My argument is that the impact of the Act will be whatever we make of it. It is in some ways an enabling Act not a compulsory Act.

Likewise the Health Act is one that is malignly talked about but has a significant transfer of authority if not power by placing public health back in local government’s hands. Councils will also have the major responsibility for shaping health services in their area by the quality and promotion of the joint needs assessment. They will also be able to work with willing GPs through the commissioning process to look at new methods of delivering services and a new involvement of GPs in wider public sector activity.

Another Act when it comes into force relates to Policing. All the talk is about the Elected Police Commissioners. Yes that is a bonkers notion but most of the rest of the Bill such as the new Police Boards and the return of real licensing powers to councils can only be welcomed.

But what became clear in today’s seminar (the details of which will be available on is the massive amount of work in all three cases that will be needed to convert an Act of Parliament into reality on the ground. That’s the trouble with our Parliamentary process. They get an Act though – think their work is done – and turn to the next Act. In fact the real work starts when the Act is passed into law and the deliverers take up the new responsibility.

For localism to work there will need to be a massive culture change in the way everyone in the public sector does business. There will also need to be changed in the way in which our partners work. As a councillor I have the need to challenge both third sector and private sector partners to make as much change in their thought processes as I am going to do if they want to engage in us and get our business.

There were people present today from all sectors who reiterated this need. Thinking out of the box – being enterprising – being innovating – taking risk are not skills that are prevalent in most people within the public private or third sectors. We will need to be all four if localism is truly to work.

I know what I don’t know (you may think I don’t know much) but am open to new ideas and want to be trained and supported into new roles so I declare “I am up for it”! Are you?


About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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3 Responses to Big Society still means nothing to me.

  1. Peter Thornton says:

    Hi Richard
    Interesting post, also last night Question Time discussion. I spent yesterday evening in Kirkby Stephen, one of the pilot areas. I’m involved there as County Councillor and have met Nat Wei, among others. Sometimes I take credit for the good bits of the Big Society/localism bill as I stood against Rory Stewart in May and we spent many happy hours debating in church halls……….and the rest is History.
    But basically, the problem with the Big Society is that we have Conservatives putting on our clothes. I once said to Rory that I felt like I had gone for a swim and come back to find him wearing my clothes, which didn’t really fit (you have to see us side by side!)
    Our challenge, as Liberal Democrats, is to reclaim our agenda, and make it work.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Big Society still means nothing to me. | But what does Richard Kemp think? --

  3. seanskipton says:

    I’ve discovered the true meaning of The Big Society: on the news last night it was reported that our society is becoming more obese, so ambulances are going to be redesigned to cater for the larger girth of the people they carry. Does this mean bigger hospitals too? Bigger beds, bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger trains? Truly the Big Society’s arrived already.

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