The last few years have not been easy for either local government or the voluntary and commumity sector (VCS). And it is not going to get any better for quite some time.
Government continues committed to austerity and cutting local government funding. Brexit will leave social and economic scares. Social cohesion is threatened in a number ways not least by the tragic growth in post referendum hate crime. Inequality and poverty are still major blights on society. And there is significant inequality is between places as well as between them. Social mobility is some of the worst in the western world. The NHS and social care crisis grows to what the Red Cross has described as a humanitarian crisis. Government plans for local authority finance will widen these and, for example, council tax bases and potential revenue varies enormously between the wealthiest and less wealthy places; business rate retention will not favour the most economically disadvantaged places.
These are formidable challenges. They can be best tackled when local government and the VCS collaborate. A good VCS will champion local communities and where necessary challenge local government but fundamentally local government and the VCS should be seeking common ground and partnership.
This is not easy and regrettably, there are far too many examples in too many places of growing tensions between local authorities and VCS groups. This is much to be regretted, for the reality is that both sectors need each other more than ever.
Both work with and serve the same communities. Both share a desire to improve the well-being of local communities. Both often have complementary attributes and skills. And effective collaboration between the two has the potential to create multiple benefits, both for communities and for the collaborating bodies.
It is a given that local government no longer has the financial resources that it once had to support the VCS. However, any local authority faced with severe budget pressures, as most are, should be very careful before making deep cuts to the support for the VCS. Indeed, there will be occasions when it is prudent to increase such support even if other budgets are being cut (although the VCS cannot and should not expect to be exempt, as a right, from budget reduction programmes). What should guide the political decision making within local authorities should be "what is best for the local community and its well-being" - and the reality is that in some cases, increasing financial support to the VCS may actually reduce pressure on other local authority budgets.
There are examples of effective partnership between the VCS and local government across the country, albeit they are far too few. In my experience, best practice leading to better outcomes are based on a few important but simple approaches by local government political and executive leaders including:
- having clear, values-driven policy objectives, and always acting in accordance with these
- focusing on place-shaping and whole systems, and putting outcomes before institutions or individual egos
- demonstrating a respect for the VCS
- recognising and respecting the right of the VCS to challenge the local authority's policies and practices on behalf of communities and beneficiaries
- having regular formal and informal, open and honest dialogue with the VCS and its representatives, including involving them in major policy and budget decision making; and in the monitoring and review of the impact of these decisions
- using grant aid to offer financial support and not simply relying on competitive contracting
- supporting representative VCS-led local "infrastructure" bodies; and where possible investing in capacity building
- brokering opportunities for the VCS in the wider local public service economy
- understanding that the VCS is about voice as much as it about services, and where it is about services, that these may often not be ones commissioned by the public sector; and never assuming that the VCS will be able and/or willing to automatically step in when a public service is cut or fails
- respecting the word "no" when articulated by the VCS
Of course it takes two to tango, and make partnerships work. Accordingly, the VCS and in particular its local representative bodies have to understand the challenges faced by their local authorities and the consequential hard/impossible choices that local political leaders are being forced to make. The VCS should be ready to offer ideas and solutions - including new and innovative ones even if this upset some vested interests. They gain little and do not serve the interests of their communities and beneficiaries if they only whinge and oppose, though this is not to say that they should accept (let alone endorse) every local authority decision.
The VCS should be supporting local government to stand up to central government and argue for more not less funding; greater devolution of resources and service responsibilities beyond the current "devolution offers"; and to ensure local governance of place is democratic and locally accountable.
Bottom line? At the end of the day, VCS should be always be true to their values and their mission. The VCS can complement but not replace the public sector. It can augment but not replace the public sector. And it should not use its charitable funds to subsidise the public sector.
However (and there is a 'however'), it also has to be pragmatic and act in ways that it can afford and which benefit its beneficiaries. And yes, this may often lead to difficult decisions for VCS chief executives and trustees - so they must face up to it, and don't be a metaphorical 'ostrich', hide and avoid making a decision. Like local government leaders, VCS leaders will find the next few years as hard as and probably harder than the last ten.
As local government seeks to shape places and mitigate the impact of central government driven austerity; and as it seeks to achieve inclusive economic growth for its place, it must both recognise that this has to mean that the VCS is core to any evolving strategy. Economic growth requires investment in social capital and social growth. Places will be better places where this is acknowledged and where there is a clear determination to devolve authority and resources to communities; to address inequality; and to promote social cohesion. Local government cannot achieve or deliver all of this on its own. To succeed, it needs to partner with other authorities, and to work with the wider local public sector and local businesses - but above all, with the local VCS.
The next few years are going to require some bold and creative solutions to some very challenging problems. These solutions are going increasingly to invented and implemented on a place basis and will be best achieved when local government and the VCS are together promoting and striving for their communities.