Cameron Launches Civil Society Initiative

The Conservative prime minister intends to “take power away from politicians and give it to the people.”

The new British government has been quick to act on one of the Conservatives’ main campaign promises: to bring about what David Cameron described as a “big society.” The prime minister and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg launched their civil society program at Downing Street on Tuesday with community organizers from around the United Kingdom.

The proposals designed and discussed at Downing Street aim to empower local communities, or “take power away from politicians and give it to people,” as Cameron put it. “That’s because we know instinctively that the state is often too inhuman, monolithic and clumsy to tackle our deepest social problems. We know that the best ideas come from the ground up,” he said, “not the top down.”

The announced plans were very much in line with the Conservatives’ campaign promises, including the launching of an annual “Big Society Day” that is supposed to inspire volunteering and the establishment of a “Big Society Bank” that will provide finance for neighborhood groups, charities, social enterprises and other nongovernmental bodies.

Notable proposals include a radical reform of the planning system that will allow people a greater stake in determining the shape of their own neighborhoods. The government further promises to “introduce new powers to help communities save local facilities and services threatened with closure,” and give people the right to bid to take over services previously run by the state.

Politically, local governments and neighborhoods should have great power as well. City councils will have “a general power of competence” while regional planning is to be delegated to locally elected officials.

Apparently modeled on the American Freedom of Information Act, Cameron also intends to institutionalize a new “right to data,” so that information held by the government can be requested and used by the public. Local police will further be obliged to regularly publish detailed local crime statistics, “so the public can get proper information about crime in their neighborhoods and hold the police to account for their performance.”

Two plans that appear a bit less libertarian include the introduction of a National Citizen Service that should “provide” opportunities for sixteen year olds to “develop the skills needed to be active and responsible citizens.”

The government also promised to “train a new generation of community organizers” and support the creation of neighborhood groups, especially in deprived areas. How exactly it will do so remains to be seen but it is a promising sign that the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is gearing up for action so readily. Perhaps even more so than other European countries, the United Kingdom could do well with a bit less centralized control.