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Local Social Action Is More Vital Than Ever - And So Are Its Champions

12/07/2016 10:02 | Updated 12 July 2016

If ever there was a time for bold, brave focussed leadership in the voluntary and community sector, at both national and local level, surely it is now?

And this must particularly be case in respect of the local community and small charity sector, which are the backbone of strong communities and the catalyst for local social action.

Given contemporary social and economic conditions, I am in absolutely no doubt that local social action, supported and facilitated by a vibrant voluntary and community sector, is more essential today than ever before.

Several years of austerity, with more forecast at least until and possibly well beyond 2020, have and will take their toll upon multiple communities, with suffering spread right across the country. Inequality and poverty, especially 'in work' and 'child poverty', are increasing. Public services are being withdrawn and/or severely cut back. And yet, demand and the need for these services is growing as a result of demographic change and austerity itself. The changes to the social security system are impacting severely on some of the most vulnerable members of society. There is an increase in race crime and sadly, in some parts of the country, there is a racially charged atmosphere post-referendum.

Early analysis of the voting patterns from the referendum indicates that there are large swathes of the country where communities feel left behind, marginalised and powerless. They chose to exercise what power they had by voting for "Brexit" which, unfortunately, is almost certain to lead to even greater austerity. The current Conservative Leadership election sees two candidates who, to different degrees, wish to further reshape the role of the state away from the post-second war consensus.

These two latter paragraphs could have been longer but they contain the key reasons why we desperately need a revitalised movement for local social action, based on the principles of equality, empowerment and solidarity.

Such a movement requires a wide range of civil society organisations including the voluntary and community sector, faith groups, trade unions and others to collaborate at the national and local level. Above it requires a national voice - a strong, loud and effective voice.

The last few years have been extremely tough for the voluntary and community sector. Funding has been cut - and the now inevitable loss of EU funding will hit the sector and many of the communities with whom it works still harder, as will further public expenditure cuts. No wonder sector activists are feeling tired but thankfully most are still determined to make a difference come what may.

So whilst it is clear that the next few years will be more challenging still, let me declare loud and clear to all who may be tempted that this is most certainly not the time to give up or give in.

Many voluntary and community organisations (large and small local and national) will collapse. Some will merge. Some will stagger on. But thankfully, those with the will to do so, and with passionate and effective leaders, will both survive and thrive. They will find the energy and the resources to reinvent themselves. They will be innovative and they will be focused on ends rather than means. They will pursue outcomes for their beneficiaries and communities rather than for self-preservation and self-protection. They will find the journey hard and challenging but resolute leaders will be driven by their missions, their values and the desire to do right.

Local co-ordination, facilitation and development will be critical, which is why the National Association of Voluntary Community Action (navca), of which I am proud currently to be vice-chair, continues relentlessly to make the case for locally funded, independent, sector-led infrastructure capacity. This voice has to be heard. It has to be sustained. It cannot and it must not waver.

As the English devolution and centralisation programmes accelerate, there is an opportunity to build strong relevant voluntary and community sector infrastructure at the sub-regional level as well as locally. This will and can only be achieved with sector-based capacity and commitment.

At the national level, the case for the voice and capacity to champion local social action, underpinned by effective local voluntary and community organisations, is essential too. This voice is related to but very distinctive from the call for greater roles for charities and voluntary organisations to contract for the delivery of public services. It is also different from the voice of the large national charities and wider social sector. Yes, these two voices are necessary but they should never be allowed to drown out the different yet relevant and distinctive voice of local communities and their organisations. It is unlikely that the large national sector bodies can (or are even willing to) make an effective and convincing case for local social action and small community based activity; and this case cannot - it must not be abandoned over the next five years.

The national capacity required will likely have to be very different from the traditional model of national membership organisations but it should retain their mission and values. It may be based on a single body or it may be part of a wider alliance - formal or informal - of existing organisations. However, it almost certainly will be collaborative, involving local and sub-regional bodies; and it will inevitably make much greater use of social media and technology to communicate, mobilise and connect its members and supporters.

Such a body must champion and facilitate those who in turn will themselves facilitate local social action. It must engage with intelligent vigour in contemporary policy, and to some extent practice development and discourse. It must argue for equality and solidarity. It must challenge and when necessary oppose public policy. It must promote alternative policies where necessary too. It must put mission before institution, staff, individuals and egos. It must be relentlessly driven whilst being fully accountable to those engaged locally and nationally in social action. It must offer a voice to those who feel disenfranchised. It must support action and not simply pontificate. It must be fearless.

Above all, it itself must be of and from the movement for social change.

From the my vantage point on the board of navca and from my direct conversations with social activists, and the wider local voluntary and community sector around the country, I am confident that there exists the will, the intellect and the resources ready to be mobilised for the cause.

Leaders across of the voluntary and community sector need to act boldly and not give up the fight. Let us hope that my confidence proves not to be misplaced.

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