Tuesday, 25 January 2011


By Keith Hebden
A small council estate on the edge of Gloucester is beginning to find out what Big Society really means. Facing cuts to public and third sector care the churches begin to try and unravel, with the community, what is really happening?

Meeting the Challenge in Matson
'Meeting the Challenge' is a document produced by Gloucestershire County Council (GCC) outlines a total upheaval of our library service. The GCC plan to close Matson Library and farm out service to 'the community' offering little by way of support and nothing by way of incentive.

Matson is a parish of not much over 7,000 people, mostly social housing flats built in the 1950s as part of a program of social cleansing of other parts of the city.

Nestled between the Cotswolds and a small but convenient city this isn't the rough-edge of English urban deprivation. But for those among us who live precariously – recently released, homeless young people, housebound and poor elderly people, and young parents – there is enough challenge to meet already.

Its largest third sector organisation, which emerged as a grassroots network of volunteers before becoming a more formal, funding-oriented, and therefore precarious organisation, is seeing its funding slashed and has only just begun to make staff redundant.

Like everyone else we are confused and nervous about what will happen to our health service and our local surgery. And our funding for youth work is also beginning to look bleak.

Let them read cake
The GCC have decided to close 11 libraries – targeting the poorest areas of the County – and are scaling back the services provided by the others. They have yet to justify their attack on poorer communities. That the Conservatives have the majority in the council may have a little to do with it.

Decisions on which libraries to close include making sure everyone can be within twenty minutes drive of a library; great if you have a car, less great if you're getting a bus, unmanageable if, like some parishioners, you can't afford either.  

But this is the Big Society so they don't have to call it cuts and closures. The euphemism of the day is "Community Asset Transfer". In other words, the 'community' are invited to bid to take over the library; "if they want to". So if the library closes it's our own fault for not wanting it enough.

While the library isn't the big issue in the Big Society it does illustrate something of the grand master plan of the Red Tory model of social welfare and government.

As a local priest I helped draft and send an open letter to the leader of our county council deploring the prejudicial nature of the cuts in services. This led to his offering to meet with 'The Matson Forum' a meeting which gave us a fuller picture but made it clear that the consultation period is nothing of the kind. They have made their minds up.

Big Business Society
The Tories talk of localism but they don't mean local democratic structures of grass-roots community-led organisations, they mean local volunteers being over-stretched while national third-sector service providers – totally unaccountable – pocket the cash.

We may not have a democratic or accountable democracy in Britain but the current ideology will move us further away still from that ideal.

Because of our over-reliance on funding, when government pulls out someone else will be needed to fill the void, and that'll be ideological groups and tax-dodging corporations. In other words Big Society is just Big Business Society very poorly disguised.

We continue to live according to the myth of redemptive mammon. As though Salvation depends on a grant and our economy relies us to work longer hours to spend more money and do ever more voluntary work to save the government more money.

Meanwhile: what's happening to all this money? The answer is simple: Bankers, Philip Green, Vodafone Shareholders and executives, offshore bank accounts, BAE Systems. Big Society means Big Money for the Rich and Big Headache for the rest of us.

Looking for the Prophet Margin
The Church of England in Gloucester Diocese has decided to go for the money. We are currently being audited, parish by parish, to see where we can plug the gap left by retreating local and national government agencies.

Like Vultures we circle the corpses of welfare waiting for MPs and councillors to throws us the odd scrap and keep us morally and economically sustainable as an institution. There is no prophetic voice in this approach and we risk losing our place alongside the powerless without even gaining any real power for the bargain.

This is a problem that, in part we have inherited. So our Bishop challenges the government plans to sell of the Forest of Dean, but we fail to mention all the Glebe land, stolen through the centuries from common folk and now providing one of the few financial securities the diocese has.

Our place in the community is not sustained by the Grace of God but by the forgiving nature of history and on the backs of the poor. We can only say with Isaiah, "I am ruined! For I am a person of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips" and see if we are willing to take the hot coals of repentance; which of course we won't.

So the Church is struggling to find a prophetic voice but first she must find her prophetic will and her prophetic witness in action. This means resisting the temptation to be, as one MP put "another government department" and choosing 'for richer for poorer' one with the parishes to whom we are called.

Keith is assistant curate for the parish of Matson, in Gloucester Diocese of the Church of England is an original signatory of the COMMON WEALTH statement and  is actively involved in Christian anarchist movements in Britain and his book 'Dalit Theology and Christian Anarchism' is due to be published with Ashgate later this year.