The government is mired in criticisms from the public sector. Only the state, they claim, can care for us. Only the traditional public sector can look after our woods, educate our children and provide us with health care. Any attempt at reform will make things worse, they say.
They are attacking the idea of the Big Society. The Big Society is an umbrella idea that reminds us that caring can come from charities, families and the private sector as well as from the state. It seeks to harness voluntary activity and the private sector as well as public cash to improve our society and look after those who need help and support. It wishes to harness voluntary and private sector effort to look after our environment and provide a range of services.
Now we are reminded that some charities are very dependent on public sector grants. Many Councils have found it easier to cut the money they give to charities than to cut their own overhead costs, leading to a campaign against the cuts from a surprising source.
We are back to the view that only public sector cash works, and the only caring that counts comes from public money. We see this in the battle of the budgets over Free schools, where the core public sector complains should any education money be given to state financed schools on the new model. We see it with Councils who prefer to spend on themselves rather than let charities and others do it for them. We see it in the opposition to health reforms where critics do not want doctors spending NHS money to provide free treatment by buying in services from the private sector. We see it in the opposition to charitable trusts looking after heritage forests, where apparently only the Forestry Commission can be trusted to keep the trees and allow us to walk by them.
None of these attitudes are healthy. They all get in the way of doing things better. They get in the way of bringing down the public deficit without undermining important public services. They are based on the public sector paradox. People who often are very critical of politicians and bureaucrats, and who regularly condemn their approach, their attitudes and their incompetence, want politicians and bureaucrats to run more and more of their lives.
The government knows that if charities and other institutions do not want to take on running a heritage forest, and if the public remain opposed to its transfer, they cannot force it. The Big Society runs on the voluntary principle. The government can offer, and allow a decade to local groups and charities to see if they want to own their local wood. It is a permissive policy, not a threat.