The final failure of the Big Society

By Chaminda Jayanetti

In July 2010, not long after becoming prime minister, David Cameron told the country in a keynote speech that he wanted to “foster and support a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social action”.

He was setting out his vision of the Big Society, which was still a favourite phrase of government spin doctors even as the public struggled to understand its vague rhetoric.

Much of Cameron’s speech that day focused on changing public services and reducing the role of the state. But encouraging a new culture of volunteering was also part of it: “The success of the Big Society will depend on the daily decisions of millions of people – on them giving their time, effort, even money, to causes around them.”

So, how’s that going…?

Not so well.

Yesterday’s data on the value of unpaid household work included a section on volunteering – how much of it people are doing, and how much it would cost to “replace” it.

And far from rising, it’s actually fallen.

Using data from the Citizenship Survey and its successor, and sticking to people who volunteer at least once a month – “frequent” volunteers, for whom the data is more reliable – the number of frequent hours volunteered each year fell from 2.28 billion hours in 2005 to just 1.97 billion hours in 2014.

That’s a fall of 16 percent, including a six percent drop in the year from 2013 to 2014, as this chart from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows (data was not collected in 2006 or 2011):


What’s more, the British population has actually risen in that time, meaning that the number of hours should have been going up just to stand still on a per-person basis.

The fall in the number of “frequently volunteered” hours during a decade when the population rose by 6.9 percent means that the average number of frequent hours volunteered per person has declined by 19.3% over the 10 year period – that’s a fall of almost a fifth between 2005 and 2014.

The ONS defines volunteering for these purposes as “activity that occurs through a formal institution – a group or organisation”. Informal volunteering, such as helping friends and family with childcare or adult care, is counted elsewhere.

The “value” of volunteering is calculated by working out how much it would have cost to pay someone to carry out that work. The gradual rise in wages over time means that the “Gross Value Added” of volunteering has remained largely flat over the course of the 2005-2014 decade.

Of course, the other part of Cameron’s Big Society vision was to shrink the state’s role in delivering public services.

And as everyone knows, he’s made rather more progress on that front.

One thought on “The final failure of the Big Society

  1. i tried hard to become involved in the tenant management of landscaped environments for those of us in social housing. The commitment of the housing association was weak, they have connections with contractors who are still on the payroll. It is sad, tenants are very keen to be involved in planting their environment and the plants that are put in by contractors are too often thorny and not attractive, when it is as easy to plant attractive, fast growing plants that look after themselves.
    Nobody who plans budgets was really interested, it was clearly the way to go, it would cut ‘costs’ vastly and environments could improve fast. We planted £2 bushes and plants from a local supermarket, the incentive was halted but the plants are still growing, along one row there are no weeds because the strawberry plants have taken over!
    The ‘Making Local Food Work’ was another project that floundered. 50,000 landworkers in a country the size of England with so many unemployed and the orchards dying off????? Astonishing, yet another issue that is conveniently brushed under the carpet. Local food? We import potatoes!!


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