Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The big society’s big bus con

Those with long memories may remember a big-talking flagship policy the Tories put forward way back in 2010 as an alternative to properly funded government services. The idea was that instead of local communities being provided with local services, the government would withdraw support and instead, an already down-trodden society would be ‘reinvigorated’, voluntarily providing government services themselves.

The policy never took off, and the promised volunteer armies never materialised. In fact, David Cameron’s ‘big society’ network has just been wound up and is being investigated by the Charity Commission for misuse of government funds. The years of cuts have seriously degraded access to services, opportunities, and employment for isolated communities in Britain. In my role on the transport select committee, I have been trying to save our local bus services, with one in five now at risk from lack of funding.

Having good transport infrastructure is the bedrock of economic growth and plays a huge role in the opportunities for vulnerable groups; poor infrastructure hampers government goals and reduces access to government services. The young, the older, the unemployed, those on lower incomes and those with disabilities, are disproportionately affected by cuts to public transport. Nearly two thirds of 17 to 20-year-olds and disabled people do not hold a driver’s licence and just a third of unfilled low skilled job vacancies are accessible within 30 minutes by public transport.

Without properly funded bus services, these vulnerable groups quickly become isolated, relying either on taxi services or on volunteer providers, neither of which are realistic replacements. Children need buses to get to school, our elders need them to attend doctor’s appointments, and the unemployed need transport for their job interviews. Taxis are prohibitively expensive for these groups and volunteer providers cannot abandon a full-time job to ferry around their communities.

Too often ‘isolated’ is conflated with ‘rural’ by the Department of Transport and support is not provided to communities most in need. Isolated communities exist everywhere, in rural areas, urban, suburban, and island communities, yet the Department of Transport has no clear definition of what an isolated community is. How can we hope to solve this problem if the people responsible are unable to define it?

Our communities need a total transport policy, one that recognises our committee’s recommendations, properly identifies which communities are at risk of isolation, and takes into account vulnerable groups when targeting bus services. We need a 21st century transport policy that integrates our communities and rolls out innovations such as London’s Oyster card across the country. Cuts in funding are a false economy; for every pound spent on bus services in isolated communities, you get three back, generating over a billion pounds in direct benefits.

We need a transport policy for the future, not one based on the hot air of the ‘big society’. By impoverishing our bus services, we are impoverishing our communities and risk increasing the vulnerability of sections of our society further.


Sarah Champion is member of parliament for Rotherham and sits on the transport select committee


The transport committee’s published report and recommendations can be found here

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Sarah Champion MP


  • Good piece Sarah but does make me wonder why Labour here support Cam’s big society & why Progress help them to do it….

  • Progress can do better than this. Community and Civil Society starts at home, and in local communities. Grandparents provide childcare, neighbours car-share, house-sit and look out for one another, toddler group, playgroups, clubs, churches, the WI and other groups serve as self-help support networks…

    …District Councils and other (often voluntary sector) agencies work to SUPPORT this core activity, and to guide folk who encounter difficulties accessing these networks so they don’t get left behind…

    Key thing: volunteers don’t ever replace “Government services”. People acting as social beings provide SOCIETY…. including those “services”.

    Of course, an Orwellian state might have aspirations to replace all of that with “Government Services”… but EVERY attempt to do so just undermines the very foundation of society… as each “provision” removes the onus on each of us to lead by example…. to each do our bit for others as ordinary (social) beings.

    That doesn’t mean there’s no role for the State… and isn’t an argument against State involvement… but it’s absolutely critical that we get the State’s role in perspective: it’s SUPPORTING the fabric of SOCIETY and helping ensure no-one is left behind… not REPLACING Society!

    Failure to get that is why Milliband’s lot are currently unelectable: fitting heirs to Michael Foot’s lot.

  • A good article by Sarah but surely those commenting (Greg) agree in a modern thriving society it’s about getting the right balance between personal and state provision and ensuring that we don’t introduce un intended costs to society by following free market mantra. local bus services need support to maintain a diverse rural and urban community.
    These solutions can’t “start at home” that’s why Cameron’s faith in the Big Society is so misplaced and the electorate can see through his big con!

  • David – the point of “Society” is that it is fundamentally associative… and what squeezes life from it is the reductionist language of finding a “balance” between the other two… and the single-issue cynicism of the likes of Sarah Champion.

    David Halpern was Chief Analyst in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit when Tony Blair was at No 10… and wrote more convincingly about Big Society here:

    Note the discussion of recognising, strengthening and valuing the “non-market reciprocity that characterises much of our lives”… and the aspirational drive to shift provision of Government services in ways that build on the “hidden wealth” of “reciprocity, relationships, and trust”.

    As many noted of some of IDS’ initiatives (amongst others)… actually doing this WELL was always likely to involve MORE Government funds than preserving the status quo… at least in the short run…

    Halpern talks of “patient hotels” which “look and feel like hotels”, but in which “guests are undergoing treatment for cancer or other chronic conditions”. These apparently achieve “better clinical outcomes at much lower cost than conventional hospitals, and score much higher for patient satisfaction” because “patients and partners are shown how to clean wounds, to put in drip lines, and to manage their own treatment”.

    Of course, what’s undermined this whole initiative is the hostility of the right… from those who saw “community organisers” as out to “harass people into approved activities” in ways “reminiscent of the Red Guards invading the countryside during the Chinese Cultural Revolution”.

    In response to the more rabidly ideological opposition, Cameron has not followed Blair’s lead (sticking to his guns, seeing off the militants) and has toned down his language… which has brought justifiable criticism:

    Of course, David Milliband would have pointed with pride to New Labour’s pioneering work in this very area… and at the richness of the Left’s communitarian roots… taking the fight to the left wing militants who can’t see beyond old tribal stereotypes – but we ended up with the other Milliband 🙁

    This is an excellent, balanced take on the whole Big Society background:

    The conclusions are damning…

    “The politically progressive elements of the Red Tory analysis that lie behind the big society, such as the critiques of economic dominance, utilitarianism and the tendency of free markets to create inequalities, have been jettisoned in the operationalisation of the concept by the adoption of libertarian paternalist policies, and completely overwhelmed by the neo-liberal ideology of the deficit reduction strategy”.

    Walker & Corbett end noting how a “critical social policy response […] has to reclaim the idea of the social as the framework within which people develop […] participate”… but the starting point needs to be recognition (and celebration) of the aspirations behind (rather than the delivery of) Cameron’s “Big Society” initiatives.

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