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Westminster Column

Dealing with the deficit and getting our economy growing is the first task of the Government. But the role of Conservatives in government should go much wider, and include work to help build a bigger and stronger society. So what do we mean when we talk about the Big Society?

First of all, it links very clearly back to what we said before the election about the broken society. There are fundamental strengths to our country but increasingly we witness the destructive cycle of family breakdown, debt, crime, worklessness and addiction that traps far too many people and communities in deprivation.

The Big Society should involve giving people the opportunity to take greater control of their lives and the communities they live in. It is about freeing individuals, professionals and communities from the clutch of state control, and giving them the ability to come together and improve life for themselves, their families and their communities. We as a government are doing this by moving forward on three particular fronts: decentralising power, reforming public services, and social action.

On the first we have introduced reforms that will put neighbourhoods in charge of their own destiny. The Localism Bill sets out a radical agenda for greater freedoms for local authorities, more power for communities to take over the running of parks, post offices and pubs and the opportunity for residents to take control of planning in their neighbourhoods. We in Sutton currently await the result of a nationally significant ‘garden grabbing’ planning application which has seen local residents and Councillors fervently oppose the unwanted development. It is the Big Society in action.

On reforming public services we are breaking apart the old state monoliths – giving choice to the people who use public services and restoring professional discretion to those who deliver them. We created more Academies in seven months than the last government managed in seven years, and the first free schools will open this September. If you’re fed up with crime and disorder you’ll be able to hold your local police to account at beat meetings and have access to detailed crime maps to help you do this (see www.police.uk). And if you’re still not happy, you’ll be able to sack your old Police Commissioner and elect a new one.

We’re getting rid of the ridiculous health and safety rules and excessive criminal record checks that were such a barrier to civic action, fostering voluntarism and philanthropy. This summer 11,000 sixteen year olds will take part in National Citizen Service pilots, followed by 30,000 next summer. It will give our teenagers more shape to their lives, a chance to learn more about themselves and to give something back.

I believe that the Big Society agenda has the power to transform our country. Labour’s top-down, centralised and bureaucratic system of government had drained away personal and social responsibility from individuals and society. Our response, the Big Society, aims to harness some of the deepest values of Conservatism – not least a profound faith in our fellow human beings – to achieve lasting social change.

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