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Big Society Vanguard Communities

Volume 516: debated on Thursday 21 October 2010

Good progress is being made on removing barriers to local action in the vanguard areas. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, we are working with the local community in the Eden valley on the roll-out of next-generation broadband, on advancing neighbourhood planning and on devolving budgets to communities. Similar progress is being made in the other areas, as part of my commitment to put my civil servants, in my Department, at the service of communities across Britain.

I thank the Minister for the work that his team is doing to support the Eden communities and the councils, and for the real progress on broadband. What lessons and experience can we take from Eden and apply to other parts of the country?

Let me pay tribute to the leadership that my hon. Friend has given during his six months in this House, and extend an invitation to other hon. Members across the House, who are leaders in their communities. I have made an offer: if we believe, as I do, that the best ideas come from people in communities, rather than just from senior officials in Whitehall, then we need to make the resources of the Department available to people in communities. I extend this invitation to all hon. Members: if they have good ideas that are facing barriers that need busting, let us know and we will help.

Given that one of the building blocks of the big society, which I believe in, is the voluntary sector, will the Minister comment on the decision by Croydon council to axe the grants to more than 20 voluntary organisations? Those organisations form the great majority of those that the council has been funding, and they include the Croydon rape and sexual abuse support centre. Does he agree that if the same thing happens nationwide, that will not be about building the good society—or, if he prefers, the big society—but will put us on a slippery slope towards a painful and bad society?

The right hon. Gentleman and I agree, I think, that it is highly desirable that we should transfer power from the centre to local communities, and that involves councils, too. I do not expect them to pull up the drawbridge in the town hall when we decentralise power and resources to them. I look to councils to increase their contacts with the voluntary sector as part of the decentralisation initiative, which affects everyone.

There are

“real fears that spending cuts will impact adversely on the capacity of the charitable and not-for-profit sector. Far from taking on more… it may be able to do rather less.”

That comment on the big society was from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives. Can the Minister tell the House just how he expects expansion in a sector that will suffer loss of grants and support—as we have heard, it is already happening—due to the 28% budget cuts over the next four years that this Government have forced on to local councils?

May I welcome the hon. Lady to the Dispatch Box? She has long experience in local government, which I know takes these issues very seriously. One thing that councils and central Government have had the chance to do in the past is to hold on to power and to avoid bringing in the voluntary sector as of right. I think we need to change that. The hon. Lady will see that, in the localism Bill, we are going to entrench rights for community groups to take over some of the services of local authorities if they can demonstrate that they can have a more effective outcome. Rights, I think, rather than discretion, is the best source of guarantees for the sector.