The Big Society - will you be part of it?

Massive cuts loom at East Devon District Council to plug a deficit. With council tax frozen, can we expect councils to pay for everything from flower displays to Christmas lights?

AS local government prepares to wield the axe and chop millions off council budgets across the Midweek Herald’s patch, we recall Prime Minister David Cameron’s vision of a Big Society and pose the question: how far will ordinary citizens be asked, or be prepared, to go?

When Mr Cameron used a catchphrase embodied in the work of political columnist and author Hugo Young to spell out that vision in November last year, it was all about families and individuals taking responsibility. He said: “The first step must be a new focus on empowering and enabling individuals, families and communities to take control of their lives so we create the avenues through which responsibility and opportunity can develop. This is especially vital in what is, today, the front line of the fight against poverty and inequality: education.”

Of course, that was before he inherited a national debt said to be greater than Greece’s.

Now public services we have all taken for granted are under threat – street cleaning and maintenance of public open spaces, to name just two.

In East Devon, the district council has already abandoned floral displays in and around towns, leaving smaller council’s to pick up the tab. That added burden on already stretched parish precepts could leave traders and visitors with a wilting feeling. But, with council tax expected to be frozen for at least a year, possibly two, in the emergency budget, details of which were due to be announced as the Midweek Herald was going to press, is it conceivable that The Big Society could involve communities taking responsibility for services previously provided by councils?

If public spending, and borrowing, is squeezed too much, will it result in the threat of decay? Are you prepared to roll up your sleeves and plant flower beds or sponsor a hanging basket, for example, to keep your community blooming?

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In Honiton, the town council agreed to take on responsibility of flower beds and hanging baskets. However, it was only asked to do so AFTER it had set its precept for this financial year.

The total cost of this year’s displays is likely to be �10,000, with only �6,500 of that sum met - �5,000 from the council’s budget and �1,500 in sponsorship.

Likewise, the town council is shelling out thousands of pounds every year for Christmas lights. Donations and sponsorship are being sought for both undertakings.

Could David Cameron’s Big Society stretch to new committees being formed to fundraise for these ‘non-essentials’ that make such a huge difference to people’s lives and enhance towns as commercial centres? It is a question residents will have to ask themselves, if public spending is cut to the bone.

Volunteers may be required in every aspect of traditionally government-funded services, even at police stations.

Unions won’t like it, but if the money isn’t there... Our communities have plenty of dedicated and enthusiastic individuals who fundraise for niche causes. Are there people out there prepared to make the same sacrifice to retain civic amenities?

Tell the Midweek Herald what you think. Email