Rough Sleeping and the Big Society
Westminster Council announced earlier this week that they were going to be:
consulting on plans to ask CLG to approve a bye-law that would outlaw rough sleeping and soup runs in a wide area that includes Westminster Cathedral piazza and the department’s Eland House headquarters.
Now there is a very easy response to this announcement and it goes something like this:
I’m well aware that this is not a simple issue. Apparently, the charities Thames Reach and St Mungo’s support the move, but other groups such as Housing Justice voiced their opposition. If I’m totally honest I really don’t know who’s right and a flippant response of WTF seems a bit cheap.
Anyway, I’m being distracted.
The interesting sub-point of this story is what it says about the Big Society.
In my mind the charities that hand out the soup and other food in Westminster Borough could definitely be described as part of the Big Society. These are charities that often have volunteers working for them. They have identified a need in society and have set out to solve it in their own way.
However, the local politicians who represent the voice of the wider population (or at least I assume they do) are in the process of passing a law that says that the charities, acting in their role as part of the Big Society, are not acting in the best interests of the whole community.
In effect the problem here is one of who is right? The citizens of the ‘Big Society’ soup runs or the elected politicians of Westminster council?
The Big Society concept argues that residents should be able to take over local libraries, sports halls and community centres. But if they don’t get wider citizen consent to do this what recourse does the wider society have? In this, very small, example they can ask their politicians to pass a law (although they need the DCLG to pass it for them which is ridiculous!). But that probably can’t happen with a community centre or a sports hall.
The problem that the ‘Big Society’ concept has is that its proponents have yet to work out how consent will be allocated to Big Society projects. By taking power away from Local Government and passing it directly to the community the proponents hoped to initiate an army of ‘little platoons’ who would be able to deliver the services most needed by local people. However, they are yet to work out how the rest of the community will be able to have a say about what these little platoons are doing.
If we have this problem with soup runs then I wonder what will happen when the little platoons really start going for it.
As a Local Government officer I really believe that Local Government provides this consent and should be written back into the Big Society.
I’m obviously a little biased but whatever happens the issue of consent within the Big Society deserves further thought.