Has The Olympics heralded the start of Cameron’s “Big Society”?

Games Makers: Volunteers at the 2012 Olympics

By Theo – I flew out of Heathrow Airport on business early on the first Monday morning of the Olympics. Riding through an almost empty London in the taxi from my home in the East End, the city looked more beautiful to me than it has looked in a long time. Yes it was full of Olympic decoration, yes the sunrise was painting a gentle tint of orange on the tall glassy buildings, yes everything was clean and calm – but there was something else. I felt as if somehow there was new life replacing the tired and depressing drone of week-in, week-out bad news we have all been enduring for the last few years.

I had, of course, just spent my weekend celebrating the opening of the games with my friends and family. The opening ceremony to me highlighted everything which is fantastic about being a Brit, whilst poking our politicians with the messages they dearly need to take heed of; that the hard work and industry of the British people built the country we have today – not politicians or bankers – and that the NHS remains something of immense national pride which needs nurturing investment, not privatisation. As the athletes from 204 countries paraded into the Olympic Stadium, each one wide-eyed and full of hope and pride,  two thoughts crossed my mind – firstly how incredible it was for us to be hosting The Games in my home town, and secondly how much better the world might be if it were filled with musicians and athletes instead of politicians and bankers.

That feeling of change I felt as the taxi drove through London that Monday morning was perhaps spurned on by excitement at having seen what great things we can achieve when we work together. You cannot fail to be  impressed by the ‘Games Makers’ – the army of volunteers who are working tirelessly to organise crowds and offer help and advice to visitors at the Olympic venues and around the wider city. And then of course there are the thousands who participated in the spectacle of the opening ceremony, everyone up to and including James Bond and Her Majesty The Queen. Not forgetting The Army who were literally parachuted in at the last minute and who I witnessed doing an incredible job – efficient, superbly organised and good humoured. In the run up to the Olympics when the G4S debacle was in full swing, one tory MP had remarked that the reason the army had not been called in to manage Olympic security before was that they weren’t good at customer service. What nonsense, they were superb! I dared to imagine what might happen if the whole country came together to put right all those things which seem to be failing for us at the moment. “Big Society”, if that’s the term for it, could be utterly incredible. I genuinely believe that there is the goodness, charity and drive in the majority of Brits to join in making things better – not just at home but worldwide.  If “Big Society” really got going we could all get involved in doing constructive things that made all our lives better in small and big ways, and almost as a bi-product we would eventually start needing to spend less on dealing with those destructive things that plague much of our lives, such as low-level anti-social behaviour in our streets that eats up so much of our police, ambulance, fire, hospital and council resources.

Yes, I’m a firm believer in ‘Big Society’ – or at least I would be if the whole premise weren’t so completely flawed. At least, for now – and here’s why.

To bring Big Society about, then society needs to give ordinary hard working people breathing space. It needs to give them the time and money to invest in their own contribution to society. That means government removing the barriers that prevent you and I from putting up our hands to volunteer. There is an old psychological theory relevant to this, known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of human needs. It’s a pyramid, the foundations of which are the need for the physiological basics of life (such as food, water, sex and sleep). With these basics in place we next need safety and security, of our family, property and employment . Until these foundations are in place, we cannot build our lives up to eventually reach the top two layers of the pyramid which Maslow referred to as ‘self esteem’ and ‘self actualisation’. Let’s assume for now that venturing out of our house and contributing to society is, for most people at least, a step more at the top of the pyramid than at the bottom – something that helps us on the path to gaining self-esteem or even self-actualisation, rather than something we do to ensure our own security or health. Herein lies the flaw in Big Society. It’s my belief that most of us today are trying to build the foundations of our own pyramids, to ensure our own health and security, and until we’ve done that we can’t build further on behalf of the nation.

I don’t earn bad money, but it shocks me to hear that the average UK wage in 2011 was £26,200 before tax. I honestly wonder how anybody earning this amount of money can afford to house, feed and clothe themselves, let alone transport themselves to work or go for a night out. The tax burden in the UK is substantial, and especially when you start to include all off the less visible taxes that come wrapped up in air travel, gas and electricity bills, insurance premiums, tax on fuel, VAT and of course Council Tax.

I bought my first flat in 1995 for £58,500. According to the Nationwide Building Society, that property is worth £239,818 today. There’s a great site called http://www.measuringworth.com, which tracks inflation and income from 1245 to the present day. Enter £58,500 into that site, and you can see what the flat would be worth today if it had gone up at the same rate as inflation (measured by the retail prices index) – it should be worth £87,700. So what about income – has that risen fast enough to keep up with house inflation? Not at all. In 1995 you needed an income of £15,042 to get a 3.5 times mortgage on my £58,500 flat (assuming a 10% deposit of £5,850). That income is the equivalent of £26,600 today. To buy the same flat today I would need a deposit of £24,000 (4 times more than I needed in 1995). However, even if I saved all that money, at the same 3.5 times income multiple I can only get a mortgage for £93,100 – giving me a total of £117,100 – over £120,000 less than I need. Put another way, if I were trying to buy that same flat today and I was earning £26,600 a year, I would need to borrow 8 times my salary to buy it. In 1995 I only needed 3.5 times my salary. It is easy to see why we aren’t becoming richer in the way that the retail prices index might suggest. And of course it’s not just house prices  but the cost of renting has risen equivalently, if not more.

Having a roof over our heads is the most primal of security and health needs , and many of us are having to spend proportionately higher and higher amounts of our income on it. Some of us are working second and third jobs to keep a roof over ourselves. Some of us are frantically selling stuff on eBay.

Now the Olympics has ended, and a sense of normality restored to our city for a few weeks, our newspapers are full of praise for the efforts of our great volunteers – many are daring to suggest this could be the start of what David Cameron referred to on coming to power as his vision of ‘Big Society’. Sad though I am to say so, I think the Olympics will prove a one-off. For most of us to put up our hands and volunteer week-in, week-out for some less glamourous cause than the Olympics,  significant changes need to be brought about to our everyday lives that put us in a position where we can actually start thinking about volunteering. It ultimately translates to an overall reduction in personal taxation,  a substantial correction in the housing market so that we can afford to rent or buy a decent home to live in, and a reduction in transportation costs so that we can afford to travel much more cost-effectively.  Of course, it’s about far more than just cash in our pockets, but my argument here is that nothing else the government does to encourage a nation of willing volunteers to come forward will be effective unless we all feel that we can personally afford it – and right now I don’t believe there are many of us who feel we can.

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