The big society localism and austerity challenges and dilemmas for theory and practice
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The Big Society, Localism and Austerity: challenges and dilemmas for theory and practice . Dr Kim McKee, Centre for Housing Research, University of St Andrews ESRC Seminar Series: The Big Society, Localism & Housing Policy Sheffield, 7-8 March 2013. Outline. Context Key challenges:

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The Big Society, Localism and Austerity: challenges and dilemmas for theory and practice

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The Big Society, Localism and Austerity: challenges and dilemmas for theory and practice

Dr Kim McKee, Centre for Housing Research, University of St Andrews

ESRC Seminar Series: The Big Society, Localism & Housing Policy

Sheffield, 7-8 March 2013


  • Context

  • Key challenges:

    • History: anything new in these ideas?

    • Geography & new political spaces

    • The local: a new site of empowerment?

    • Exacerbating place-based inequalities?

    • Challenges for the VCS

    • Reconfiguration of British Welfare State?

  • Conclusions

Policy & Political Context

  • Popularized following formation UK coalition gvt 2010

  • Nebulous concept; appeals to left & right of spectrum

  • BS argues solutions to social ills lie within civil society at local, community scale; not with ‘big government’

    • Revival of ‘the local’ & policy interest in places/communities

    • Local decision-making, asset-ownership, mobilization VCS etc

    • Civil society as a ‘resource’ for the state in austere times

“We believe that a strong society will

solve our problems more effectively than big

government has or ever will, we want the

state to act as an instrument for helping to

create a strong society. Our alternative to

big government is the big society […] We need

to use the state to remake society”

(Cameron 2009: no page number)

  • Influenced by work of social commentator Phillip Blond (Respublica Think Tank)

    • Context of broader welfare narratives

    • Critical of British welfare state; stresses greater role for VCS, esp traditions co-operation & mutualism

  • Informed housing policy across the UK (esp Eng):

    • Community Land Trusts

    • Community Self-Build Housing

    • Resurgent interest in Co-operative & Mutual Housing

    • Promotion of community ownership assets & land

    • English Localism Act 2011 (planning & social housing)

    • HAs as community-anchors/place-shapers (Respublica 2012; McKee 2012)


    1.History: anything new in these ideas?

    • Ideological emphasis on community & presumed benefits devolving power downwards not new

    • Central to modernizing agenda of previous New Labour administration (1997>2010, esp Blair gvt)

      • Third Way & Communitarianism

      • Policies such as New Deal for Communities

  • Localism also popular under Conservative Gvt 1980s-90s

    • New Public Management & Tenant’s Charter

    • Reducing power of local authorities

    • Continuities in policy discourse reflect the “mongrel phenomenon” that is neoliberalism (Peck et al 2009)

    • Discontinuities as well as continuities; important differences between current & previous gvts

      • New Labour: co-governance & partnership working to modernize welfare state

      • Big Society: evokes VCS to attack big gvt, particularly the welfare state

      • Very different funding climates – VCS now enjoys less state funding; knock on effects for sustainability & survival

  • Need to see BS in its historical & spatial context

  • 2.Geography & New Policy Spaces

    • Devolution (1999) ushered in ‘new policy spaces’ (Alcock 2002)

    • Most influential in English policy context; although promotion of ‘community’ common thread

    • Rich & diverse VCS in Scotland, esp in housing, but more scepticism towards the ‘Big Society’ (McKee 2012):

      • Community Empowerment & Renewal Bill 2012

      • Christie Commission 2011

      • Community Ownership of social housing has long legacy

      • Emphasis on community-anchor organisations in regeneration

    • Political geography important impact on way in which policy discourses constructed & mobilized

    • Challenges of delivering public services in ‘hard times’ pertinent across the UK

    • In England housing reforms become entangled in debates about welfare dependency (e.g. end to traditional social housing as we know it)

    • Localism more positive potential elsewhere in the UK?

    3.The Local: a new site of empowerment?

    • Revival of ‘the local’: manifest in a reinvigorated policy & political interest in localities, communities & places

    • Extent to which these agendas will ‘empower’ local people remains contested

    • Concern devolving ‘responsibility’ as well as ‘autonomy’ downwards

      • Civil society a ‘resource’ for the state (Morison 2000)

      • Means to reconstruct post-war welfare settlement

      • VCS further entangled in webs of governance

    • As Cruikshank (1999) argues strategies of empowerment are still technologies of governance

      • Constitute & mobilize the governable –subject’s capacity to act

      • Transform political subjectivity into an instrument of gvt

      • Perspective on power that presupposes freedom (Foucault – power is productive)

  • Should not assume that all communities necessarily want to take control

    • May not be a demand for community ownership for example, where already receiving good service

    • Local and central government have statutory responsibilities

  • 4. Exacerbating Place-Based Inequalities?

    • Localism may exacerbate social-spatial inequalities:

      • Communities do not speak with one voice

      • Nor are they all equally resourced nor empowered; nor operating at the same scale

  • Some communities may be more able than others to articulate their needs and command resources:

    • Issues such as skills, education, capacity, experience are all relevant here

    • May disadvantage already low-income/deprived neighbourhoods

    • See also work of Hastings & Matthews on middle-class activism

  • 5. Challenges for the VCS

    • Concern about adopting someone else’s term (Big Society); but support core principles

    • Blurring boundaries between third and public sector; expected to fill the gap as the state retrenches

    • VCS also facing its own funding challenges; need resourcing if to play a bigger role

    • Scale of interventions questioned by some: community v national level

    • Rescaling of policy interventions lead to ‘localization’ of policy failure (Macmillan & Townsend 2006)

    6. Reconfiguration of British Welfare State?

    • Re-thinking of desired relationship between the state & its citizens

    • Promotion of VCS to achieve more pluralistic model of welfare provision (the ‘voluntary turn’)

    • New ‘mentality of rule’ – encourages place-based communities to take responsibility for own welfare

    • Indicative of evolving pol-eco geographies of neoliberalism (Brenner & Theodore 2002)

    • Danger of returning to Victorian style patchy provision

    Involves “specific constructions of

    space, scale and temporality, which

    have important consequences for the

    shape and structure of the emerging

    welfare state”

    (Macmillan and Townsend 2006: 29)


    • Big Society/localism have been influential in shaping the political & policy landscape across UK since 2010

    • Need a critical reading of these agendas:

      • Mobilization of community now new (history matters)

      • Policy discourses have differential impact in different places in different ways (geography important)

      • Localism is no guarantee of community empowerment

      • Devolution may exacerbate place-based inequalities

      • Pose threats as well as opportunities for the VCS

      • Important consider broader context welfare reform

    • These key themes will be unpacked in more detail by other speakers/contributors

      • 1st of 3 ESRC funded seminars: Big Society, Localism & Housing Policy (Belfast Oct 2013, St A March 2014)

    • Our intent is to foster critical discussion & analysis; encourage cross-sector debate; build new network of researchers interested in this field

    • Big Society mixed bag for both theory & practice

      • Important recognise weaknesses and challenges of these agendas, as well as strengths and opportunities

      • Difficult to critique aspirations for local control, ownership & decision making, but effects uneven


    • Alcock (2002)

    • Brenner N and Theodore N (2002) “Preface: from the ‘new localism’ to the spaces of neoliberalism” Antipode 34(3): 349-379

    • Cameron D(2009) “The Big Society: Hugo Young Lecture, 9th Nov 2009” (online)

    • Cruikshank B(1999) “The Will to Empower: democratic citizens and other subjects” (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press)

    • McKee K(2012) “Housing Associations and the Big Society: lessons from Scotland’s community housing sector”. St Andrews: University of St Andrews

    • Morison J(2000) “The Government-Voluntary Sector Compacts: governance, governmentality and civil society”, Journal of Law & Society 27(1): 98-132

    • Peck J et al (2009) “Postneoliberalism and its Malcontents” Antipode 41(1): 94-116.

    • Respublica (2012) “Acting on Localism: the role of housing associations in driving a community agenda” (Online)

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