“You do it!”: When the Big Society outpaces Small Government

(Title Image: Bridgend County Borough Council)

You would have assumed David Cameron’s vision for a “Big Society” was about community empowerment, co-production, local control over local services and an increase in volunteerism.

Councils have the unenviable task of dealing with year-upon-year of actual and real terms cuts to their budgets. When the next draft Welsh budget is published next month, I doubt it’ll contain much in the way of good news for councils as they compete with education to be front of the queue for any additional funds coming the Welsh Government’s way from London.

As a result, many Welsh local authorities have fully embraced the Big Society vision as cover for cost-cutting.

One of the most pervasive examples is the “Community Asset Transfer” policy. In principle, it’s a good idea: local authorities offload mid-range-maintenance-cost public assets to community councils and/or the organisations that use them, sometimes in exchange for a lease arrangement.

The cabinet at my home local authority, Bridgend, recently upheld a decision to increase the fees they charge sports clubs and community organisations to use pitches and pavilions by up to 400%+ unless they enter into a Community Asset Transfer agreement (at which point the fees would be frozen at current levels).

In just one example, Bridgend Town Cricket Club could face annual charges of more than £27,000 per square (they use two squares at the town’s Newbridge Fields IIRC).

In many cases, the assets being transferred down are barely usable and should probably be demolished after years of neglect – several photos have emerged showing the shocking state of changing rooms at Newbridge Fields.

The Community Asset Transfer process is often daunting. While Bridgend Council relaxed and streamlined some of the conditions in the summer and provides capital funding to smooth over transfers, only one sports-related project (Bryncethin RFC) has been completed to date (with a few more at an advanced level of negotiations) and required £500,000 in funding from various sources. Even three or four projects of that scale out of the potentially dozens coming forward will strain budgets and tempers.

The process presumably includes things like indemnities and other forms of insurance as well as complicated legal issues around property maintenance, boundaries etc.

Those organisations starting a Community Asset Transfer process are also often required to present a five-year business plan (though this requirement in Bridgend was relaxed in the summer). Where would you even start to do that for a playing field or public toilets?

If this was part of a broader multi-year strategy which had the clubs, organisations and community councils on board from the very start then it might not have been as controversial as it’s turned out to be. Instead, the goalposts change each year depending on how much councils are expected to cut. This is austerity at street level, with the party line often being reduced to: “If we can’t make cuts here, they’ll have to be made to schools/social services/social care”.

While some of the larger and semi-professional clubs might be able to deal with this (sport governing bodies are notorious for red tape after all), your average volunteer district league club will likely find the process intimidating. Some clubs have already been upfront in saying this threatens their future. It’s not only Bridgend either, with similar policies being taken forward in Neath Port Talbot, the Vale of Glamorgan, Carmarthenshire and Blaenau Gwent.

Also, while a lot has been said this week about reforms to the 22 unitary authorities, the absence of a strong, effective, well-resourced tier of local government below them – to take charge on issues like this – is a glaring omission and a hit-and-miss situation depending on where you are. Some community councils in Bridgend (and the rest of Wales) have the capacity to take the lead where the clubs can’t, others are nowhere near as capable.

An opportunity for community empowerment and autonomy looks more and more like sticking your hand in a bear trap.

With many basic local government services outsourced to third-parties (i.e. leisure centres and libraries) or cut back to the point where they’re no longer viable and have to be withdrawn anyway (bus subsidies and public toilets), many people are left asking what our councils actually do?

What does it say when we’re expected to trust local authorities to run schools and social services – and raise council tax by near double-figure percentages – but they no longer want to cut the grass? There has to be something better than: “You do it!”

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