Earlier this week, Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the chief executives body Acevo, delivered another blow to the government’s big society
In a letter to David Cameron, the Prime Minister, Bubb pointed out that the concept was “effectively dead” because the government had struggled to communicate it properly or implement it consistently. Bubb’s letter largely focused on the government’s failure to involve charities more in public sector reform or to protect them and their beneficiaries from crippling cuts to public spending.
However, one aspect that Bubb’s letter did not address was the role of the individual in the big society. When the big society concept was originally launched, much was made of the need for the public to become more active in their own communities and rely less on state support. A variety of ways were suggested about how they could get involved in their communities – from maintaining their local parks, to running libraries and providing assistance to elderly residents.
But all of these initiatives rely on one thing: people having time to give. In my experience, the weak economy of recent years has affected people’s lives in many ways, not least that many people in employment now find themselves having to work harder and longer just to make ends meet. Among my friendship group of late twentysomethings and early thirtysomethings – some with children and some without – few have the spare time or disposal income that they once did. As a result, weekends and evenings tend to be dominated by mundane chores and DIY, leaving little time free for anything else.
In my own case, I estimated that I did more than 50 hours of volunteering in 2009 despite the arrival of my first son. Last year, this probably dropped to around five hours – and I am far from unique among the volunteers I know.
Last year’s Olympics may have given the concept of volunteering a boost but is this really likely to translate into more people becoming active in their communities, given the current financial strains that many households face? If the government is truly keen about reawakening this aspect of the big society, then it needs to start addressing some of the fundamental things that prevent people from giving their time, such as the rising cost of living. More also needs to be done to encourage companies to allow staff time away from the office – paid or otherwise – to volunteer in their communities.
As things stand, many people, especially those in full-time employment, just don’t have time to give time. And unless something significant happens, little will change.