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Where is the ‘capacity’ for the ‘big society’?

The village newsagent is not simply a place to buy a paper, it is a centre of news itself. This morning in Webster’s, Debenham, the talk was of three successful weekend fund-raising events in the village.

Central and local government both talk about building capacity for volunteering. They are employing increasing numbers of people to tell us how to do it.

Yet village across the country already have the capacity both to raise money and organise projects large and small. On my desk I have a 150-year-old report from the Ipswich Journal of a concert in which raised £5 towards renovating the Market Cross to become the Debenham village library.

The two largest 20th century buildings here were both community projects. The Odd Fellows Hall — a precursor of the welfare state — is now the Old Fashioned Bathrooms business. The leisure and community centre, which includes sports and exercise facilities as well as a hall, continues as a village project.

Debenham is running pretty close to full capacity at the moment. Some of the schemes are imaginative such as that for the primary school to build a swimming pool which will be open to all and the Debenham Project to support the carers of people with dementia.

Yet we are being told to do more in the name of a doctrinaire idea called “Big Society” (in Suffolk aka New Strategic Direction). We don’t want to be patronised. We had a big society before any of the current political parties came into existence.

And it is going to be tough finding the money for the things people here are doing already: supporting local things and people in other countries.

The Observer yesterday reported:

The Office for Budget Responsibility has raised its prediction of total household debt in 2015 by a staggering £303bn since late last year, in the belief that families and individuals will respond to straitened times by extra borrowing. Average household debt based on the OBR figures is forecast to rise to £77,309 by 2015, rather than the £66,291 under previous projections.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate economist, commented on these British figures last week:

… the only way the economy can avoid taking a hit from government cuts is if private spending rises to fill the gap — and although you rarely hear the austerians admitting this, the only way that can happen is if people take on more debt. So we have the spectacle of a government that inveighs against the evils of debt pinning all its hopes on an assumption that over-indebted households will dig their hole even deeper.

All in all, it’s quite a spectacle. It would be funny, except that millions of people will suffer the cost of this folly.

Substitute “county council” for “government” and you have what Suffolk County Council is also asking us to do. Our capacity to support existing projects, let alone do more, is going to be stretched in the next few years.

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