Could a little-noticed strike brewing in Southampton signify problems to come for the big society programme of the new government?
Earlier this week librarians were balloted on industrial action over the city council’s plan to replace six full-time staff with volunteers. The council says the move will save £137,000. The issue goes right to the heart of coalition plans to, in the words of education secretary Michael Gove, “harness the idealism of volunteers” and involve citizens in the running of public services just as the axe will be falling on public spending.
The Conservative manifesto promised to “empower communities” to take over amenities such as parks and libraries that were “under threat” – presumably from budget cuts. The Building the Big Society document, published by the coalition on Wednesday, reiterated this idea with a commitment to legislate to help communities save local facilities threatened with closure. This plan has been endorsed by many in the sector including community group umbrella body, Community Matters.
As Young Foundation director Geoff Mulgan noted at the Charity Finance Directors’ Group conference last Tuesday, the key issue for the sector is whether voluntary organisations back the transfer of previously tax-funded public services to groups of volunteers as the state reigns in its responsibilities. Mulgan gave the example of a bus service taken over by a semi-volunteer-led organisation. Is this a good thing?
There are a variety of issues. Will the public react positively to being asked to help deliver services that they thought they were paying to receive through their council tax? Will the sector be seen as complicit in making cuts? As noted by many pundits, the ‘big society’ did not play particularly well on the doorstep during the election campaign.
The Network of National Volunteer-Involving Agencies, which includes CSV, Barnardo’s and the National Trust among others, released a manifesto this week calling for more volunteering opportunities in public services.
That desire seems certain to be fulfilled. But will those opportunities include previously paid-for core jobs being delivered for nothing by hastily trained volunteers? The sector needs to decide where it stands, because the question will become pressing very soon.