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10 December 2023

UK's Cameron defends faltering 'Big Society' plan

David Cameron (AP File)

By Reuters

British Prime Minister David Cameron will relaunch his faltering "Big Society" programme after a series of damaging blows to the plan for volunteers to take over local services, Sunday's Observer newspaper said.

Cameron has identified himself closely with the flagship policy, which builds on his Conservative party's belief in smaller government by devolving power to local people.

But Cameron's 8-month-old coalition with the smaller Liberal Democrat party has struggled to explain the strategy to the public, undermining his authority and exposing him to ridicule.

People still have little understanding of the policy, with half believing it is a "gimmick" and 40 percent saying it is a cover for spending cuts, according to a ComRes opinion survey for the Sunday Mirror and Independent on Sunday. Cameron and his ministers will spend the coming week defending the programme and detailing $160 million of funding to help charities and volunteer groups compete for government contracts for the first time, the Observer said.

Cameron will also announce in the coming weeks plans for a "Big Society university", backed by a multi-million pound endowment, to train community workers.

"The big society is about changing the way our country is run... This is not another government initiative -- it's about giving you the initiative to take control of your life and work with those around you to improve things," Cameron wrote in the Observer.

"People have the compassion, flexibility and local knowledge to help their neighbours and communities. Our approach will not merely enable them to build a stronger society, it will actively help them to do so," he said.

Elisabeth Hoodless, head of Britain's largest volunteering charity, Community Service Volunteers, said last week the Big Society scheme was being undermined by the coalition's plan to cut more than 80 billion pounds of state spending over four years to tackle a record budget deficit.

Many local authorities, looking for savings after cuts in their central government funding, have been slashing grants from the very voluntary groups that Cameron hopes will take a greater role in civil society.

One of the four Big Society pilots, Liverpool City Council in northwest England, said earlier this month it was quitting the scheme after funding reductions forced it to cut 1,500 jobs.