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Kristen Dhanda carries her official stick and bag to pick up rubbish in the London suburb of Maidenhead. To Prime Minister David Cameron, she is a foot soldier in his radical, new 'Big Society.' Ms. Dhanda says she'd be doing the same thing either way. (RANDY QUAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL/RANDY QUAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Kristen Dhanda carries her official stick and bag to pick up rubbish in the London suburb of Maidenhead. To Prime Minister David Cameron, she is a foot soldier in his radical, new 'Big Society.' Ms. Dhanda says she'd be doing the same thing either way. (RANDY QUAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL/RANDY QUAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Britain's do-it-yourself government Add to ...

A few times a week, Kirsten Dhanda takes her family and her dog to Grenfell Park, her local green space in the affluent London commuter suburb of Maidenhead, and picks up discarded beer cans.

If you ask her, she's just doing what any civilized person would do to keep her neighbourhood tidy for everyone to use. Ms. Dhanda does not think of herself as a tiny cog in the most radical, sweeping experiment that Britain has embarked on in the postwar years, an experiment that - if it works, which is entirely up in the air - will transform every aspect of British life, from schools to hospitals to police forces.

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And yet that is exactly what she is: one of Prime Minister David Cameron's foot soldiers, marching toward the new Jerusalem that he calls the Big Society.

Ms. Dhanda was just doing her bit to clean up after the can-tossing louts who pollute her kids' playground when she was asked if she wanted to sign up to one of the fledgling Big Society programs run by her local government authority, Maidenhead and Windsor Council. She was given an official stick and a bag so she could bring the rubbish home and separate it for recycling; she had "adopted" the park.

Some of her neighbours watched skeptically from their houses: Didn't they already pay taxes to the council so it would pick up the garbage?

"If I didn't have an official role, I'd do it anyway," says Ms. Dhanda, 37, a former British Airways flight attendant. "I'm glad to help out." Does she think of herself as being part of the Big Society? She laughs: "I hadn't thought of it that way, but I guess I am. It's David Cameron's big thing, isn't it?"

That's an understatement. Long before his Conservative Party took over in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in May last year, Mr. Cameron talked incessantly - monotonously, some of his colleagues thought - of his "great passion" to devolve power away from bureaucrats in London to ordinary individuals.

"The biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power, from elites in Whitehall," he said in a speech last summer, "to the man and woman in the street."

In a political shakeup that is already in turmoil and is being watched carefully by other leaders around the world, Mr. Cameron's government is moving rapidly to make decision-making more local, to remove red tape so that communities can have greater say in how public money is spent, and to build an army of volunteers such as Ms. Dhanda who will shoulder the burden of delivering public services just as the axe of budget-cutting falls.

In a year's time, if all goes well, the Big Society Bank that Mr. Cameron has created will be doling out £200-million ($320-million) to voluntary groups (some of the money comes from dormant British bank accounts). A host of "bureaucracy busters," 5,000 civilian volunteers and an army of 16-year-olds will be recruited to help deliver social services.

In the Conservative idyll, the inexpert but enthusiastic will take over libraries, run unprofitable bus services, scour public ledgers for irregularities.

The plan is fluid and in flux, and may include everything from tiny initiatives such as free book exchanges or donating to charities via bank machines to huge initiatives such as encouraging health workers to set themselves up in self-governing co-ops.

Citizens will be elected as watchdogs over police; others will band together to run schools. In Sutton, south of London, they'll give you 10 kilos of free sand for the winter roads, but you'll have to spread it yourself.

That is the rosy vision, anyway. But this week, the outlook for the Big Society grew considerably bleaker. People who had initially signed on are backing away, saying Mr. Cameron's plan is unworkable because it's being implemented at the same time as the government's austerity plan, which cuts 25 per cent from public-sector spending.

The British charitable sector faces upward of £3-billion ($4.8-billion) in cuts. Liverpool Council, one of the four flagship Big Society authorities, has said it will no longer take part since it will need to cut its budget by $225-million and its work force by 1,500 within two years.

Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, outgoing head of Community Service Volunteers, has decried the "massive" cuts and said the government had no strategy in place for constructing the Big Society. To much online derision, 34-year-old Big Society adviser Nat Wei cut back his hours on the program: Too busy, people snickered, to volunteer his time.

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