Mayor Boris Johnson recently bantered good naturedly on affordable housing with some unhappy (i.e. unelected) BNP hecklers. I was in Barking as he steered an unsatisfactory course between condemning the previous government’s “disastrous” immigration policy while putting the narrow economic case for an asylum amnesty. But it was Cllr Phil Waker, Cabinet Member for Housing at Barking & Dagenham that got my attention.
Whilst I’m not one to romanticise council housing, I was encouraged by his welcome of the return of the “right to build” and with it the devolved funding he expected Boris to lobby for. While housing associations are remote and unaccountable, he said, you can at least ‘get rid of us if you don’t like us’.
Waker’s ready acknowledgement of the responsibilities of office, and of his accountability to a much maligned local electorate, was refreshing. Especially given the evasive rhetoric I was becoming accustomed to. In an earlier talk by Jonty Olliff-Cooper, a ‘specialist in the Big Society movement’ and formerly of the Conservative Party Strategy Unit, we were urged to welcome the age of the “listening politician”. Why? Because they ‘don’t need to have the right answer any more’. The retreat of politics is seldom put so bluntly.
The Chief Executive of the RSA, Matthew Taylor, for example, went around the proverbial houses at the launch of a new “vision” for public services. Speaking as a member of the Commission on 2020 Public Services, he insisted that the days are over when people could just ‘sit back passively’ while the state provided services for them. This was in response to an irate audience member accusing the Commission of an “abdication of responsibility”. Taylor advocates an “active” citizenship where we all muck in and gain a sense of togetherness. A thoroughly Blairite invention, but one that fits just as snugly within Cameron’s increasingly austere Big Society. Whether it’s to balance the books or to civilise the masses, outsourcing responsibility for local services amounts to much the same.
And yet for all the cynical uses to which it is put, I still hold out some hope for the concept of the Big Society. I liked much of what Toby Young has to say regarding free schools, for instance. He makes the case for a classic liberal education, albeit on the ‘boutique’ scale of his proposed West London Free School (as one much-lauded headteacher has sniffily put it). Not a new idea, granted. But a good one. Indeed, Young’s defence of “old school” values is as rare as the empty rhetoric about engaging people and devolving power is commonplace.
However the only way the political class will ever really engage people is by coming up with some ideas of its own, not by delegating the job to us. In the absence of ambitious proposals to rebuild the economy (or at least some houses) the good society will remain as elusive as ever. The flight from responsibility of our elected representatives in the name of the Big Society must be exposed for what it is. And for bucking the trend, Cllr Phil Waker should be congratulated.