The Conservative Party rarely talks about the Big Society agenda any more since its peak in 2011. Nevertheless, the idea that communities should step in where the state has retreated remains a core feature of Conservative policy in government. This raises serious questions.
Are those communities most affected by the withdrawal of central and local government services really the people best placed to replace these services? Can the withdrawal of tax money be replaced by voluntary action and fundraised income in communities hit by years of austerity and economic turbulence? Can equality of access to services be guaranteed by ad hoc voluntary provision? Or is this more likely to lead to growing inequality as areas rich enough to provide for themselves prosper and those in already downtrodden areas are simply left behind?
To start to explore these questions, I turned to the charity register. As each charity has a registered address, it is possible to pull out a list of all charities broken down by location of its main office. I decided to look at the last ten years of data to try and identify where charitable organisations are being set up - is it in the poorer areas most in need? Or wealthier areas with more free time and money to invest in the process of setting up charities? Of course not all charities are set up to serve the areas they work in - some will be overseas, or work nationally, but most charities are small local organisations, so this should still provide a useful proxy for the provision of local voluntary services.
The results are shown below in a map of local authorities in England, showing the number of charities registered per 1,000 people between 2005 and 2015. The highest concentration of charities per head of population is across the prosperous south of England and wealthy rural areas such as David Cameron's own constituency in West Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds.
Green implies higher numbers of charities per 1,000 people; red lower numbers of charities per 1,000 people.
One of the few anomalies is London. Despite having many of the most deprived local authority areas in Britain, it also has comparatively high numbers of charities being registered. It seems likely that this is down to the number of national charities that are registered in London, attracting an unusually high number of charities for the size of its boroughs. Many charities with an aspiration for growth on the national level will register an office in the capital. It seems fair then to discount London as an outlier when looking at the relationship between how deprived an area is and the number of charities that are established in an area.
This relationship is plotted out on the chart below, which looks at the number of charities registered per head of population (excluding London) plotted against the local authority's score on the English Indices of Multiple Deprivation (where a lower score means more deprived). The results are clear - there is a linear relationship, with more charities being registered in wealthier areas. The correlation coefficient for this relationship is 0.41, suggesting a moderate positive relationship.
The implication for Big Society and similar policies is also clear. While there is more work to be done to establish more rigorously what kinds of services are being provided by local (and national charities) and to what extent they are or can replace state functions, it seems likely that voluntary action is not capable of filling the gap in poorer parts of the country. Withdrawing state funding and services and encouraging communities to fend for themselves is likely to work fine for wealthier areas, but will leave poorer areas behind.