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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 The Globe and Mail

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.

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.

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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.

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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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Are the wheels falling off Mr. Cameron's people carrier before it even leaves the garage?

To its proponents, the Big Society is a gloriously liberating chance to tear up the rule book and hand it back to Nigel Public for rewriting. It's the same democratic and civic impulse that led to crowd-sourcing and locavorism, except with a government seal of approval.

Don't despair yet, these proponents say. "Difficult births can sometimes lead to glorious lives," wrote Phillip Blond, founder of the ResPublica think tank, whose book Red Tory is essential gospel for the Big Society faithful. "This is not a child that anyone seriously wants to abandon."

But that's exactly what its critics would like to see happen: To its varied and vocal detractors, the Big Society is an ideological exercise in dismantling the welfare state, a return to Victorian disequilibrium where the many disadvantaged rely on the goodwill of the obliging few.

Is this decentralizing or dismantling? A nation debates

"We should tell the government that the destruction and dismantling of the state is fundamentally wrong, and we won't have it." After Frances Crook, head of the prisoners' rights group the Howard League, says this, a ripple of applause breaks through the auditorium at the London School of Economics, which is full to overflowing.

If there is a consensus among the four panelists debating "Big Society and Social Policy in Britain," it is that the term itself is confusing and barely understood by the person on the street whom it is intended to empower. Equally, though, there is a growing appetite among Britons to know more about how this multi-tentacled policy will change their lives.

There are countless debates like this one around the country. There are books, with titles such as The Road from Ruin: A New Capitalism for a Big Society. There's even a well-received play called Little Platoons, its title taken from Mr. Cameron's favourite philosopher, Edmund Burke, in reference to the tiny civic units he thought were society's best drivers.

At the LSE debate, even the sole panelist defending the government's policy is worried that it has been marketed as the best thing since sliced bread. Rory Stewart, Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border, takes the stage and says, "The biggest enemy of the Big Society has been the overselling of it."

Mr. Stewart is a multilingual former soldier and tutor to Princes William and Harry, who once governed two provinces in Iraq and wrote a book, The Places in Between, about his 6,000-mile walk across Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is one of the rising stars of the Tory Party, and if anyone can take the policy's lumpy clay and form it in an appealingly recognizable shape, it's him.

His constituency is one of the three remaining flagship Big Society authorities, now that Liverpool has abandoned ship. In his rural riding, the most sparsely populated in the country, citizens have banded together to dismantle planning hurdles and purchase land to build affordable housing because no developer was willing to do it.

A hundred other individuals have devised a way to bring broadband to remote Cumbria: "They've outthought the government and British Telecom and will probably end up installing the fastest broadband network in the country for a 10th the price," Mr. Stewart says.

The successful Big Society projects, he concludes, will be "very local, very particular … giving a competitive advantage to those who understand the local area, who care deeply about it, who have the will and desire to transform it."

He gets some applause too, but many in the audience sit with folded arms and scowls. It is a commonly repeated joke that the initials of the key Tory policy just happen to be B.S.

"There's an awful lot of cynicism out there," says Karl Wilding, the head of research at the National Council of Voluntary Organizations. "Government is saying, 'We want people to be more involved,' but if you look at all the cuts being made to volunteer-involvement organizations, they're all sinking because their funding is being cut."

In other words, who recruits the army of volunteers that Mr. Cameron envisions? Who trains them, who buys the paper for the printer they share? Who pays the overhead for their office?

Mr. Wilding, who has researched the effects of the drastic public-service cuts in mid-1990s Canada that the coalition government is emulating, says it's a myth that there's fat to be trimmed in the voluntary sector. In his office, the only way they could find to trim costs was to turn the thermostat down two degrees.

The idea of charities as places where soup is doled out is an outmoded one. Now, they are in the business of delivering services for the disadvantaged that the government can't or won't.

In Britain in 2009, 39 per cent of people volunteered at least once a year (down from a high of 44 per cent in 2005) and 26 per cent at least once a month (from a 2005 high of 29 per cent). Those figures are reasonably steady over the past decade.

To encourage more people, Mr. Wilding says, the government has to lead the way in imagining new ways of volunteering: donating "micro-slices" of time, for example, or sharing expertise through an Internet portal and not by attending endless meetings.

Mr. Cameron's government is desperate not to conflate the austerity cuts with his Big Society plans, but the two are inextricably linked, says David Robinson, who for 30 years has run a service for the disadvantaged in East London called Community Links.

Mr. Robinson was one of the volunteer leaders invited to attend a small meeting last year when Mr. Cameron was fleshing out his ideas.

At the time, he was impressed by the rhetoric about empowering communities. Now, he has written a letter to the Prime Minister to ask him to reconsider the speed of the cuts, which he considers "penny-wise and pound foolish."

He cites the likely gutting of legal-aid programs as being overly hasty and rash: "It's much cheaper in the long run to advise a family and prevent them from being evicted than to cope with the cost of that family on the street."

Think locally, act locally, decide locally - and run your own local school?

But volunteering is only one element of the Big Society, albeit the most eye-catching one. Ever more important is localism, or handing decision-making over to street level.

"We will be the first government in a generation to leave office with much less power in Whitehall than we started with," Mr. Cameron said in November, 2009.

In the same month, he delivered a key speech citing Edmund Burke (and slamming his Labour predecessors) in proclaiming the superiority of the "small and local over the large and central."

He has appointed a decentralization minister, Greg Clark. And a localism bill is making its way through Parliament that will remove many planning barriers, open local governments' books to scrutiny and make it easier to change policies via referendums.

The bill paves the way for locals to buy community assets. And it will open up a can of worms that slithers into the conversation every time two English people with school-age children get together - the deeply divisive issue of free schools.

A ratty strip of West London, sandwiched between Lew's Gent's Hairstylist and a restaurant billed as a Mexican-English Eating Room, seems an unlikely battleground in a war over social spoils. But these are unusual times.

Palingswick House is a three-storey yellow-brick building housing an unusual coalition of charities - there are groups representing immigrants and refugees from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

These charities will be booted out if, as seems likely, the Conservative-led Hammersmith and Fulham Council takes the controversial step of selling Palingswick House to the writer Toby Young and a group of like-minded parents who are taking advantage of Big Society liberties to open the West London Free School.

"I'm used to the odd brickbat, but I didn't anticipate this level of opposition," says Mr. Young, the author of a 2001 memoir titled (fittingly, under the circumstances) How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. "I had underestimated just how vicious the left-wing opponents of the free-school policy would be."

Mr. Young, the father of four children under 8, faced a dilemma familiar to many London parents who dislike the state secondary schools in their area: move, go private or get religion. "I thought maybe there's a fourth choice," he says. That choice involved setting up a school to be run by parents and funded by the state, but entirely free from educational authority control.

The West London Free School will be unapologetically old-fashioned: Latin will be compulsory until the age of 14, and there will be an emphasis on subjects such as math, history and English. The school opens in September, and so far there have been three applicants for each of the 120 places

"It's based on best practice at academically rigorous schools," Mr. Young says. To its critics, those words are code for Tory and posh.

The subject of free schools, and Mr. Young's in particular, is a grenade guaranteed to detonate wherever the middle classes gather for a dinner party.

Mr. Young says, "Politics has suddenly become exciting again. There are real differences of opinion. The dividing line is over just how big the state should be, and issues like free schools are absolutely inflammatory."

When decision-making gets 'downloaded,' where does the buck stop?

Even though its proponents argue that the Big Society transcends passé political labels, it's around touchy issues like schools that old divisions are hardened.

Self-styled progressives worry that a parent-led school - even one that says it won't select pupils on the basis of ability or affluence - will become, as Mr. Young says, "a middle-class ghetto," and that it will siphon resources from other more needy schools in the borough.

The National Union of Teachers vehemently opposes free schools, which have freedom to set their own curricula and pay rates.

The West London free school, and other citizen-led enterprises, give rise to a whole series of concerns about accountability and influence that the government hasn't fully addressed.

A politician is held responsible for the decisions he or she makes - voters take care of that - but what is the equivalent recourse for bad decisions made by your neighbour, which affect the whole neighbourhood?

Power over budgets, too, is being devolved to the micro-level. A scheme called Participatory Budgeting, which allows citizens to allocate portions of local funds, has been tried in Tower Hamlets in London and small towns in the north of England.

Indeed, participatory budgeting has spread to other municipalities in West Europe, one of the indications that other governments are taking tentative steps toward new models of citizen-led policy.

But should the unelected be put in charge of divvying up tax dollars? The tyranny of the people - or at least a self-interested slice of them - is a cautionary tale in California, where the past couple of decades of direct-democracy initiatives (in the form of ballot propositions) have limited lawmakers' ability to raise property taxes, for one thing, leaving the state on the verge of bankruptcy.

In Britain, though, those issues are still far off, and may never need addressing if Mr. Cameron's army is scattered before it's mustered.

"Can the Prime Minister tell us," Ed Milliband asked this week in the British Parliament, "how his Big Society is going?" The Labour leader seemed barely able to control his glee.

To the sound of cheers from one side and jeers from the other, Mr. Cameron responded: "I believe that almost every single member of this House of Commons actually backs what we're talking about."

Now he just has to convince the rest of the country.

Big inspirations

Edmund Burke

The 18th-century Irish political writer and philosopher is a huge influence on Conservative thought, particularly in his ideas about adherence to tradition and to the local: In Reflections on the Revolution in France, he wrote, "To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind."

Red Tory

In Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It, Phillip Blond, founder of the ResPublica think tank, argues that "British culture has collapsed" under the weight of a grossly overexpanded state (on one side) and a selfish economic system on the other. He calls for a "politics of virtue" which values tradition and empowers society's dispossessed to become involved in decision-making.

The Spirit Level

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, the influential 2009 book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett analyzing the causes and consequences of social inequality, has been cited not just by David Cameron but also by Conservative MP Jesse Norman in his new book, The Big Society. The Conservatives argue that their predecessors in Labour expanded the state but were ineffectual in reducing inequality in Britain.

Canada

Britain's coalition government has been openly admiring of the huge public-sector spending cuts delivered by the Liberal Party in Canada in the mid-1990s. "You only have to look at the success of the fiscal contraction in Canada, where a purposeful attempt was made to engage the public, to see that it is possible to rally support for deficit reduction, and it makes it easier to achieve the necessary cuts," said Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, now the deputy prime minister, in March 2010.

Brazil

"Participatory budgeting," in which the community gets to decide how to spend a portion of government funds, began in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre and by 2000 had spread to 130 municipalities across the country. Pilot projects in the UK are in place in Bristol, East London and Nottinghamshire.

Elizabeth Renzetti is a member of The Globe and Mail's European bureau.

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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