By David Brindl
‘Big society’ meetings cancelled over cuts anger
Embarrassment for Cameron as meeting series meant to kickstart ‘big
society’ abandoned due to public frustration at spending cuts
Plans to kickstart David Cameron’s “big society” through a series of Barack Obama-style town hall meetings have been abandoned after the first event ended in acrimonious exchanges over spending cuts.
The Big Society Network, which was organising the so-called town hall tour with support from Whitehall civil servants, says the open format of the meetings “wasn’t really working”. The network is now rethinking its tactics.
The idea of channelling people’s voluntary efforts into public services has so far failed to overcome cynicism that it is a cover for cuts. In particular, the idea has yet to win the crucial backing of activists in the community development sector.
Julian Dobson, editorial director of the sector’s New Start magazine, said: “There are areas around which conversations can happen, but at the moment we are seeing situations where people are feeling assaulted – not surprisingly, because many of them are going to lose their jobs and their livelihoods.”
The town hall tour had been planned as a series of at least 10 meetings across the country.
About 200 people attended the Stockport meeting, dubbed “Bigstock”, and were addressed by Steve Moore, a prime mover in the network and a specialist conference facilitator. He quickly found himself facing questions about the network’s links with government.
Nicola Headlam, a Stockport resident and researcher at the Centre for Local Economic Strategies in Manchester, who attended the event, said: “It got quite feisty, it’s fair to say. People were asking: ‘Who funds you? Are you funded by the Conservative party?'”
Moore was at one stage forced to say he had paid his own train fare to attend the meeting, according to Headlam, but was unable to answer repeated questions about how the big society could be developed in a climate of severe cuts.
“The mood was quite ugly by the end,” Headlam said. “There was so much anger about what the cuts are going to do to the voluntary sector when, at the same time, the vision of the big society is not being well articulated.”
Moore told the Guardian that the meeting had been “useful”, but confirmed there would be no further town hall events with the same format.
People in Stockport had thought it an opportunity to raise concerns about wider public policy issues such as local planning matters, council policies and cuts, Moore said. “It wasn’t really working to have a big, open public meeting where people were discussing the cuts.
“We want to do something to further our long-term ambition, and we are very clear about the direction we are taking, but we need to spend more time thinking about where and how we hear from those we need to work with.