Friday, February 11, 2011

UK budget cuts undermine “big society” and weaken volunteer programs

Last July, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a program called the “big society.” In this program, many responsibilities held by the national government would devolve to localities (thus allowing Britain to be a “big society” instead of a “big government”).

The idea behind this program is to give people more control over their lives, while simultaneously shrinking the size of the central government. Under this plan, care of many community properties such as libraries, housing developments, and even hospitals would devolve from the government to community groups. Big society is a moderately popular plan. On paper it sounds plausible, invoking memories of George H.W. Bush’s a thousand points of light. Government would step out, but nonprofits, local governments, and charities would step in. Most people want to be civically engaged, and local control does allow for more flexibility in programming.

However, nine months later, the concept of a Big Society is colliding with the reality of harsh austerity measures, leading to what many volunteer and other youth service groups believe is a recipe for disaster. Like many other nations, the UK is deeply in debt.When the Conservative PM Cameron took office, he promised to reduce the debt and tame the “out of control” spending created by years of Labour-run government.

In order to do that, strong austerity measures were put into place, severely cutting the budget of many local councils. Theoretically these cuts are supposed to reduce wasteful spending and bureaucracy. In reality, councils are both cutting overhead and choosing to defund important programs including senior citizen services, the police force, public building hours and, perhaps more than anything else, youth services.

The austerity cuts alone have major implications for youth service. Volunteering England, which offers volunteer training, may have to close 30 centers, and 3000 local youth workers may lose their jobs. Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said that the voluntary sector was going to lose £4.5bn because of the government's austerity measures.

This only gets worse when combined with the new responsibilities of the big society program. Because the government is stepping out, other associations have to step in. These groups are now expected to do far more with far less funding.

The Liverpool city council, designated as one of four big society pilot projects, recently quit, claiming that the budget cuts didn’t allow the big society to function. Dame Elizabeth Hoodless, outgoing Executive Director from Community Service Volunteers (CSV), the largest volunteer organization in Britain, claimed that the cuts were undermining the big society program and “destroying the volunteer army”.

While the austerity cuts in Britain are noteworthy, funding cuts for community service agencies are being discussed elsewhere as well. In the US, Republicans are recommending budget cuts that would eliminate the Corporation for National and Community Service entirely, and many local communities have already cut programs.

Here at ICP, we’re both concerned about potential cuts and excited for many programs in the UK, including the launch of their National Citizen Service program this summer. For a detailed look at service in the UK, take a look at ICP’s Youth Civic Participation Worldwide snapshot. We hope that as governments both in the US and abroad look for ways to cut their budgets, they don’t forget the power and wisdom of investing in young people.

Has your local volunteer program been affected by cuts in government spending? Tell us your stories in the comments below.


Colleen said...

An interesting article about this topic was in the Oxford Times today:

Javier Vega Cifuentes said...

England, is implementing budget cuts that affect the UK economy and society.

Here is an economic analysis of what happens in England



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