Nottinghamshire scheme that helped cut crime and sparked community involvement falls victim to government cuts
The “big society” was not even a scribble on the back of a Notting Hill restaurant napkin when a tiny neighbourhood project got under way in a deprived former pit community in Nottinghamshire eight years ago. But what activists achieved in Manton would come to embody exactly the kind of social action initiative the prime minister had in mind when he unveiled his government’s “legacy” social project.
Manton Community Alliance set itself a bold ambition: to revitalise a community beset by unemployment, crime, antisocial behaviour and pitifully low levels of civic engagement. It sought to break a culture of dependency and was fired by the belief that neighbourhoods could only be transformed from the grassroots by encouraging local people to help participate in the running of the area.
The alliance was convinced that traditional state-led, top-down neighbourhood regeneration projects were unwieldy, unsustainable and doomed to fail. Making Manton a better place to live, it believed, came not through bureaucratic process, but by building community self-esteem and confidence, and developing “social capital”.
Progress would come from individual behavioural changes, such as encouraging an end to littering, and bigger collective ones, such as people having a real say on how local public services were run and public funds spent, from policing to parks.
“In 2004 we were talking about big society in Manton without knowing what it was about,” said the alliance’s former neighbourhood manager, Richard Edwards.
With a £350,000 annual grant from the Labour government, the alliance set about experimenting with radical and innovative approaches to community engagement. It had community policing before it became a mainstream idea and tried participatory budgeting, giving people influence in the decisions made about the community.
Traditional clip-board consultation methods were abandoned, along with civic meetings.
The alliance knew it was often cutting against the grain of accepted wisdom on how to tackle entrenched community problems. Its detractors criticised its approach as fluffy and conceptual.
But over time, Edwards said, the benefits emerged: crime fell 30%; levels of public involvement in the community went from practically zero to 62%; neighbourhood trust levels soared; and three-quarters of residents surveyed agreed Manton “had got better”.
Word got around about the transformation happening in north Nottinghamshire. Coachloads of regeneration professionals turned up to see what was going on, said Edwards.
The alliance began to win awards. A PhD student from the University of Bergen, Norway, based a thesis on the work at Manton.
The project’s seven-year funding stream stopped in 2011, but Edwards was optimistic that the success of the scheme and the government’s commitment to big society would enable it to survive, and pass on its learning to similar communities across the UK.
But his optimism was misplaced. The shutters came down on Manton Community Alliance at the end of December. Huge cuts scuppered hopes of finding council funding. More galling, however, was a lack of funding from the government’s £20m Social Action Fund, designed specifically to help projects like Manton. Edwards applied twice, in vain.
“I would have come to terms with us closing if we were rubbish,” he said.
The collapse of Manton Community Alliance is a symbol for all that has gone wrong with big society, says Paul Twivy, a social entrepreneur and enthusiast for the principles underpinning David Cameron’s vision.
Twivy, who helped set up the Big Lunch initiative, now runs Your Square Mile, a project which works to bring the ideas pioneered in Manton and elsewhere to deprived communities across the UK. Manton, he says, was “big society incarnate”.
Twivy was one of a handful of carefully selected activists and social entrepreneurs sympathetic to big society ideas, who were invited to the launch of Cameron’s vision at Downing Street on 18 May 2010, just two weeks into the coalition.
Alongside Twivy in the cabinet room was Dick Atkinson, of the Balsall Health Forum, who was said to have been the inspiration for the Tories’ big society manifesto, and David Robinson, of Community Links.
Present too were social innovators such as Hilary Cottam, of Participle, digital activists such as Will Perrin, of Talk About Local, business-minded charity heads, such as Rob Owen, of St Giles Trust, and Lord Adebowale, of Turning Point.Experienced advocates from the inner-city frontline included Camila Batmangelidjh, of Kids Company.
The guest list symbolised everything big society was supposed to be about: innovative, grassroots focused, sustainable, entrepreneurial, and sceptical of the ability of the state on its own to solve social problems.
The huge, corporate “Tesco-style charities” so reviled by the Conservatives in opposition and the big charity sector lobbying groups were conspicuous by their absence.
Cameron made it clear in a short speech that the types of organisations his cabinet room guests represented would be the vanguard of the big society: “If we want to solve our deepest social problems, whether it’s drug abuse, whether it’s problems of poor housing, whether it’s problems of deep and entrenched poverty, whether it’s the problem of children in care – it’s going to be the voluntary sector [and] social enterprises.”
Two years on, a Guardian survey of those Downing Street guests shows many have become deeply frustrated and disheartened at the gap between rhetoric and reality on big society.
All said Cameron’s vision resonated with them at the time. Many now regard it as a policy that has lost its way, derailed by savage cuts in public funding to the voluntary sector – estimated at £3.3bn between 2011 and 2016 – and the government’s failure to unlock institutional resistance to change in Whitehall.
“Big society ran into the reality of the cuts,” said Adebowale.
Their pessimism about big society was reflected in a comprehensive independent audit published on Monday by the thinktank Civil Exchange. It maps the voluntary sector’s collapse in trust in the government, and says grassroots social enterprises are being carved out of government contracts because of an “implicit bias” towards big private companies.
It warns the cuts, which disproportionately focus on poorer areas, will exacerbate a “big society gap” in which social capital shrivels in places where it is most needed (like Manton), potentially leaving Cameron’s vision as an “initiative for the leafy suburbs”.
Cameron continues to push the big society, despite widespread public and media scepticism.
The civil society minister, Nick Hurd, points to a range of government initiatives – recruitment of a cadre of community organisers, Free Schools, a national citizen service, small social action funds, and new powers for communities to take over services under the Localism Act.
But Robinson, dubbed the “godfather of community organising” said he was not impressed: “I do not think they amount to a whole, coherent, new vision in the way that big society was first discussed. They are small-scale changes, and pale into insignificance in terms of the extent of the cuts and the impact on organisations like ours.
“If we were to have that meeting again we would say he [Cameron] should make serious changes … My hope is that he learns the lesson of the first two years. It is not enough to paint a picture; you have to get the plumbing right in government to deliver big society.”