Last week a number of national charity organisations including the NCVO, NAVCA, ACEVO, Compact Voice and the Equality and Diversity Forum jointly wrote to every local authority leader in England. The message was clear: 'when you set your budget, don't cut budgets and funding for the local voluntary and community sector'. There was a further call to council leaders to involve the local voluntary and community sector in strategic budget and commissioning decisions.
No question - these are laudable aims. As a trustee of several charities including NAVCA, I strongly endorse the thrust of this letter. Indeed, there was some anecdotal evidence that in the last two years many (but not all) local authorities have disproportionately cut funding for the voluntary and community sector. Some commentators have even suggested that this was in an attempt to protect their own directly employed staff or because it is often easier to renege unilaterally on a contract with a charity than it is with a multi-national company (which, to be honest, it probably is). The letter urged local authorities to value the voluntary and community sector as a genuine partner and not as an easy target when making financial cuts.
However, I do worry that the voluntary and community sector does not always make its case as effectively or wisely as it could.
The fact is that the sector per se has no greater claim on limited and indeed decreasing public sector funding than any other. Surely what really matters is 'what are the best ways of securing the right outcomes for local residents, service users and communities'. It is 'people' and not 'organisations' that matter.
Of course, it is true that if those organisations that can and do provide critical services for local people and those which support front line service providers and community groups (e.g. councils of voluntary service) are denied sufficient resources to survive, they will not be able to contribute to community and personal well-being. Accordingly, local authorities must be reminded of the need to consider the implications of proposed funding cuts to ensure that they are not jeopardising the survival of critical voluntary and community sector organisations.
And it is worth reminding local authorities (and the Government) that the voluntary and community sector is much more than simply a service provider:
• it provides a voice for communities and groups within a diverse society
• it has a critical role in building sustainable and resilient communities
• it advocates and champions people - often some of the most vulnerable and marginalised members of society, even when this brings into conflict with the public sector and politicians
The voluntary and community sector will clearly be weakened if it allows itself to be focused exclusively on service provision and in particular, on contracted public services. Instead, local authorities and the wider public sector should respect and protect the wider role of the voluntary and community sector. Indeed, they should see it as being complementary to their own roles.
I believe that the voluntary and community sector must urgently look to broaden its funding base beyond local authorities and the wider public sector. It must argue for the retention and in many cases, the return of local authority grants. And it can, in the right circumstances, develop collaborative arrangements with the local business community. It has to raise funds from local sources and find new ways of working.
There is a real and pressing dilemma here. The voluntary and community sector do not specifically exist to do what the state should do and it will be a grave error to be lulled into assuming the role of surrogate or banker to the public sector.. That said, as the role of the public sector is redefined and reduced (the voluntary and community sector will find it hard in many circumstances to stand by as people, especially its beneficiaries, suffer. At the same time, local government should not take advantage of the voluntary and community sector's generous commitment and desire to honour its mission and to serve those in need.
The voluntary and community sector has to be able to measure, report and demonstrate its impact. And local authorities now have a legal duty to commission and procure social value. These two approaches are inter-twined. It is time for local authority procurement to be re-designed so as to ensure real and meaningful opportunities for local community and voluntary organisations.
The collective letter from the voluntary and community sector leaders was right to call on local authorities and others to involve the sector in key strategic decisions. However, I fear it missed the opportunity to both explain the wider role that the sector plays beyond service provider and agent of the state, and empathise and acknowledge the financial challenges being faced by local authorities. Faced with cuts in total expenditure of over twenty five per cent and in some cases over forty per cent from the last Spending Review and braced for further cuts in this summer's Spending Review, there can hardly be a single local authority budget line that will be shielded from cuts. Local authority financial pressures are greater today than they have ever been as a result of the cuts to central government grant; the impact of the Government's welfare 'reforms'; and increased demand for services.
The voluntary and community sector has to recognise this at both the local and the national level. And it has to empathise with local authorities more than it often does but equally be prepared to challenge and campaign against authorities.
My strategic advice to the sector, is to seek to find common cause with local government to make the case to central government to stop or at least mitigate the impact of further cuts; to expose the human and financial implications of the Government's welfare 'reforms'; and to argue for greater localism with more devolved responsibility and resources to localities. The two sectors should be working together at both national and local level to:
• explore new forms of service delivery that might be more appropriate to this period of prolonged austerity
• develop models for shared assets, people and services
• create new models of local community governance which embraces both sectors and local people; and above all
- encourage effective collaborative dialogue on strategic issues in every locality
What I have outlined above is a significant but essential agenda that need to be addressed, and it will be best addressed when both sectors have mutual respect and trust in each other. -Such trust will not be won in the courts or through actions or communications by either sector, which seem self-serving and one-sided.
There is no point in blaming a local authority for actions caused by central government any more than there is benefit in starving local community organisations of funds simply to protect other budgets if in so doing the impact is worse/more negative for citizens.
I very much hope that the letter from charity sector leaders to council leaders will spark a new sense of urgency at local and national levels to build strong alliances between the sectors based on mutual respect for each other's valuable contribution to local places and their independence from each other. People and communities - served by a 'combination' of both the voluntary/community sector and local government - will be the winners. Surely that is the point and our goal? And surely in austerity England, don't we just want some wins!