Big Society agenda 'has failed'
David Cameron's Big Society agenda has failed and left the UK more divided than before, a think tank has concluded.
The report by Civil Exchange found that the results of the strategy had been "largely negative", with people feeling unable to influence local decisions, a widespread disenchantment with the political system and weaker communities.
Efforts to encourage wider involvement in delivering public services had resulted in a "race to the bottom" on contract price and reduced transparency and accountability, the report said.
The think tank's director and the report's author C aroline Slocock said: "Despite investment in the Big Society, it has largely failed. Our findings show that society is more divided than before, we feel less able to influence what happens in our communities and public services are, in some ways, less accountable and responsive to diverse needs.
"Many people may ask what happened to the Big Society? It was a key commitment of this Government and they are entitled to know whether it worked, even though the Government hardly mentions it now.
"The real question, however, is what happens next? Whatever name it goes under, the next government will continue to look for ways to give power back to people, to make services more responsive and to encourage local action.
"To do this successfully requires much better collaboration with local and voluntary groups, giving people a genuine stake in local decision making, reviewing the way we contract companies to deliver public services and making sure major businesses give back more to society."
The report said: "In 2010, David Cameron promised a Big Society in which 'we are all in this together' and a 'deep, serious reform agenda to take power away from politicians and give it to people'.
"Considerable effort and investment has been made over the last five years to take forward the initiative, and some of this will take time to yield results.
"But, despite these efforts, it seems there is now a more divided society in which power has not been shared significantly with those who have least."
It continued: "The results so far are largely negative. Fewer people feel they can influence local decisions, disenchantment with the political system remains widespread and communities are less strong.
"A market-based model for reforming public services is concentrating power in the hands of new 'quasi-monopoly' private sector providers rather than in those of local people and is reducing, not increasing, transparency and accountability."
The report added: "Ultimately the Big Society might have been expected to result in a more united and better society - but so far the signs are of a more divided one... There has been some increase in well-being. But against indicators of social capital, such as trust, community attachment and neighbourliness, there has been a fall.
"Crime has fallen but there has also been a significant increase in food poverty and homelessness."
The report said there was a "huge and growing gap in wealth" while "the very poorest have borne a disproportionate share of benefit and tax cuts".
Despite the setbacks, the report acknowledged the "potential to unlock the power within society has also been demonstrated but it remains to be realised on a significant scale".
The think tank said some councils were working with voluntary groups "to create services that better meet local needs", in some areas communities were coming together to provide services.
There are also encouraging signs that the NHS is seeking to engage with civil society groups "not just to deliver better services but also to deliver better health".
The report said the next government after May's general election should take steps leading to a "genuine transfer of power" away from Whitehall and increased collaboration with civil society organisations.
The Cabinet Office said the report did not reflect the "significant progress" made on the agenda.
A spokeswoman said: "We remain committed to unlocking the power of a bigger, stronger society as part of our long term plan for the economy and we can already demonstrate a strong track record of delivering this.
"Since 2010 we have seen 130,000 National Citizen Service graduates, the world's first social investment bank launch, public service mutuals increase tenfold and the largest ever transfer of assets into the charitable sector.
"Volunteering and charitable giving is up and there has been an unprecedented drive to devolve power and money to local communities. There is more to do, but we do not believe this report fairly reflects the significant progress made."