“I’ve used up 20% of my time and still not mentioned the Big Society. Why? Because if it ever meant a thing it doesn’t matter now, not in the disadvantaged communities that I know best.”
So said David Robinson, founder of East London charity, Community Links, at an event The Guardian‘s offices on Tuesday evening. As Patrick Butler, who chaired the event, reports, Robinson went on to describe the Big Society concept as being ‘as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike‘.
David Robinson’s speech – at a meeting organised by the thinktank, Civil Exchange, as a follow-up to their recent publication The Big Society Audit was passionate and well targeted but I left the meeting feeling slightly bemused.
While social sector leaders are right to be angry about the detrimental effects of cuts in government funding, at Tuesday’s meeting and beyond our messages seem have got stuck there – leaving us defending jobs and services in our relative small sectors of the economy, rather than advocating for a different kind of society in a broader sense.
Someone who is focusing on the bigger issues is Colin Crooks. The founder of Greenworks, now Executive Chairman of LCRN, was on Radio 4’s Four Thought a couple of weeks ago talking about tackling unemployment.
In a strongly argued 15 minute broadcast, Crooks says that: “We obsess about youth unemployment and it’s distracted us from two much, much bigger issues – the loss of semi-skilled work and the appalling failure of our education system”
Crooks believes that unemployed and poorly educated parents are not able to be positive role models for children – and that young unemployed people are being trained to write CVs to apply for jobs that don’t exist. In the face of these challenges we’re not creating jobs and we’re not not doing anything to help those adults who’ve never worked.
Discussing his significant experience of running recycling businesses, Crooks recalls queues of 50 men chasing each new manual job on offer, along with memories of staff whose working lives were hampered: sometimes by illiteracy, sometimes by such a lack of knowledge of the world of work that a request to make the tea on their first day causes them to storm out.
The current economic crisis makes existing problems worse. How do we deal with a situation in which 12 million of the 40 million working age people in the UK are not in work and 10 million adults don’t have a single GCSE?
For Crooks, the answer is that: “We must stop proritising our efforts by age. Let us instead focus on releasing the entrepreneurial spirit of that let down generation. Local social entrepreneurs know what is needed in their area and they can create the jobs that we need to make.”
He adds: “We should deal with the real problem not the symptom – the real problem is the lack of jobs for people with low skills.”
Clearly, the main reason we have millions of people economically inactive is not that politicians, public sector agencies and business people just don’t care. Most of us agree that mass unemployment is a bad thing, what’s harder to agree on is what to do about it.
As well as his radio broadcast, Crooks has written a book, which he’s currently aiming to publish with the help of some crowd-funding. The book outlines ideas for creating 1,000 new jobs in each of the 1,000 most deprived areas of the UK.
As I haven’t read the book yet, it’s hard to say whether this plan will work but I think it’s vitally important that as many social entrepreneurs and social enterprises focus on these real life economic issues.
There’s bound to space in the social economy for a few more Facebook-style websites and apps offering corporate executives increasingly exciting ways to allocate their fifteen minutes of weekly volunteering time but creating businesses that give more people a stake in the economy is, frankly, a bit more important than that.
Whether or not the Big Society idea continues to exist, the challenge of building a socially just society remains. Colin Crooks is asking some important questions about how we do that. Does the UK’s social enterprise movement have the answers?