Geography, the Big Society and public spending cuts

Author: Andrew McCulloch

Just a placeholder image

Michael Gove MP, the Secretary of State for

Education, speaks at the Big Society policy

launch in March 2010. Image by

Paul Clarke via Wiki Commons.

There have been several reports in the newspapers recently saying that the Big Society is going to be threatened by cuts in public spending. To some people this might seem like a slightly odd thing to say. If the Big Society is about people organising themselves outside of the reach of the Government then a reduction in Government spending shouldn't have much effect. Indeed, Conservatives have always tended to see Government as having, at best, a limited ability to create community where it did not already exist. And my guess would be that that is still the view of many Conservative and quite a few Liberal MPs. Government should get out of the way and let people organise their lives as they wish.

This neglects at least two points. Firstly, Third Sector organisations, such as charities and social enterprises are no longer wholly dependent on voluntary contributions of time and money, but have increasingly become involved in the provision of Government services. The role of such organisations in the delivery of Government services is also very likely to increase in the near future. For example, the Freud Review examined the previous government’s Welfare-to-Work programme in 2007, and recommended that charities and voluntary organisations be encouraged to bid to run such programmes.

Secondly, there is a significant relationship between the level of deprivation in a local area and the level of involvement in voluntary activities. For example, the Place Survey collected information on involvement in volunteering for a sample of around 1,000 people for each Local Authority in England and the Figure below plots the percentage of respondents involved in voluntary work in the past year against the proportion of the working-age population in receipt of a means-tested state benefit. The Figure shows a clear negative relationship between the proportion of respondents involved in voluntary work and the proportion of the population in receipt of a means-tested state benefit. In the ten areas with the lowest rates of benefit receipt, around 25 to 30 percent of the population reported that they had done voluntary work in the past year, while in the ten areas with the highest rates of benefit receipt less than 20 percent of the population had done voluntary work.

Plot of proportion of working-age population receiving a means-tested state benefit in 2008/2009 and the volunteering rate from Place Survey (excludes the new local authorities created in 2009: Wiltshire, Shropshire, Northumberland, Durham, Cornwall, Bedford and Cheshire) [1].

Figures from the recent National Survey of Third Sector Organisations also highlight the importance of government funding for organisations in deprived areas [2]. While around 50 percent of organisations in the most deprived areas received government funding, only 20 percent of those in the more affluent areas had received government support. Many Third Sector organisations are going to see funding cuts in the near future and at a time when the demand for their services is likely to be rising. So this is why some people, and particularly those involved in running voluntary organisations, are apprehensive about the impact of spending cuts, but does it have any implications for the Big Society.

The central idea of the Big Society advanced by the PM speaking in Liverpool shortly after the election [3], was that people have become over reliant on Government and that there is therefore a need for greater self-reliance and self-sufficiency on the part of individuals. From this viewpoint, it could be said that cuts in public funding might actually be a good thing for the Big Society, because it will give people an incentive to organise to meet their own needs. For example, the Victorian friendly and mutual societies are often held up as examples of the type of self-organisation that we should be seeking to create as an alternative to public welfare.

To my mind at least, this ignores the extent to which organisations such as the Victorian friendly and mutual societies catered largely for the welfare needs of the respectable working class, or men who were likely to be in regular work. As in many areas of social policy, the welfare state can be seen as expanding on the efforts of voluntary organisations, and then using the greater capacity of the Government to reduce what were seen as unfair and unreasonable inequalities. In the 19th Century, for those who couldn't find work, it often meant the work house where people undertook manual labour under what we might think of as close to prison conditions. Some well-known people, for example the artist Alfred Wallis, died in the work house. So the point is that so far we have only been able to come up with a limited number of solutions to the problems of people who can't find or are unable to work. Although there may be some Victorian values that we might wish to rediscover, their response to the problems of poverty is probably not one of them.


[1] Data are available from:

[2] Clifford, D., Geyne Rajme, F., Mohan, J. 2010. How dependent is the third sector on public funding? Evidence from the National Survey of Third Sector Organisations. Third Sector Research Centre, Working Paper 45.

[3] Cameron D, 2010, "‘Big Society’ Speech",

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