THE BLOG
17/09/2013 11:16 BST | Updated 17/11/2013 05:12 GMT

Councils and Councils for Voluntary Service Can Find Common Cause

Local authority support and in particular financial support for local Councils of Voluntary Service (CVS) is ebbing away in too many places.

This is tragic. They serve the same communities.

There should be common cause to promote community well-being and much more. Well-being and outcomes in challenging times require strong public - social/sector partnership.

In different places, the principal role played by a CVS and Rural Community Councils (RCCs) is often fulfilled by a body with a different name. This article is about all such bodies provided that they are formed by, representative of, and accountable to the local voluntary and community sector (VCS).

Faced with massive cuts across vital services and rising demand for their services, local authorities have inevitably been forced to make some hard choices. Tragically, and with little thought for the knock-on impact, grant support for a local CVS and/or equivalent bodies has too often been seen as a relatively easy target for the cutting axe. This is short-sighted and deeply mistaken as the VCS should be part of the solution to respond to austerity.

Indeed, some local authorities have adopted an almost ideological stance against grants to the local voluntary and community sector. Rather, they choose to commission and procure services, including capacity building and development support for the local VCS. The outcome, however, has commonly seen contracts for such services not being awarded to the local CVS, even though this is their principal role. And in some places, contracts have been awarded to business sector companies from outside the area - companies with little direct experience of the VCS or locality.

Too many local authorities are failing to recognise the value of an active CVS, accountable to the local VCS, providing bespoke and place specific support to the local sector and their voice on behalf of their members and their members' beneficiaries. Such a voice when representative and well delivered is a powerful element of any local democratic system. And whilst local authorities may not always find themselves comfortable with the messages promoted by a CVS, nonetheless, they need to hear those messages and acknowledge that a representative CVS makes a vital contribution to local strategic collaboration and place shaping.

Local authorities as place shapers and community leaders should be supporting the local VCS and local CVS financialy; with support in kind; with the provision of accommodation and support services; and by respecting the sector as a core partner.

Of course, not every CVS is effective. Some are no longer representative of the local VCS and possibly not of the newly emerging sector. Even so, these facts do not provide cover for every local authority to consider stopping their support for and engagement with a CVS or equivalent body of and for the local VCS. Indeed, a forward-looking local authority might better consider how it can work with the VCS locally and nationally to support the rebuilding of communities.

In my experience, one reason why some local politicians, MPs and national politicians, and senior local public sector officials do not value CVSs and their equivalent is that the case for them has been poorly made over recent years. And in this regard, the VCS does not always really help itself.

Take for instance the language that we use. The sector often describes these bodies as 'local infrastructure bodies'. Indeed, the Government and Big Lottery have been promoting the 'Transformation of Local Infrastructure' (TLI) with a large amount of money. I defy anyone to stop a citizen on the street or even many councillors and ask them to define 'local infrastructure body'. Their responses are more likely to refer to roads and bridges than to a thriving community sector.

National and local VCS bodies have to make the case for CVS and equivalent bodies in ways that chime with contemporary policy, social, economic and environment conditions and modern (especially accessible and common sense) language. Sadly, we have not done this very well to date (and I write these comments in a personal capacity as trustee and board member of NAVCA).

Making the case 'more intelligently' requires explaining the case for and value of a strong effective local VCS with the resource and means to: meet local needs; articulate local voices; contribute to the achievement of local strategy and place shaping; build capacity; develop professional practice; adopt and practice good governance; and secure long term sustainability. They must be focused on beneficiaries and outcomes.

Ideally, local authorities and their local partners such as police and crime commissioners, clinical commissioning groups, LEPs and others should be willing to support CVS and their equivalent within a locality to fulfil the important roles that (quite oddly, in my view) have been described as 'local infrastructure'.

Grants rather than contracts would ensure that the VCS and its own bodies are not at risk of losing their local role to some other incoming organisation; and grants would provide greater 'freedom' for the VCS to be determine what is right for them and their beneficiaries. In stark contrast, contracts tend to be over prescriptive. Of course, a grant arrangement must have: accountability for achieving some high level outcomes; meet governance standards; and be representative of the local VCS.

Be clear - I am not arguing that this change and responsibility has to be all one way. The public sector should consider how it can be more supportive and responsive to CVSs and similar bodies. At the same time, however, the CVS and the wider VCS has to be willing to evolve to meet new circumstances and new needs. Many are and there is increasingly diversity across the sector - this makes sense if a CVS is to be relevant to local conditions, requirements and ambition. However, this 'evolution' needs to pick up pace.

A starting point would be voluntary merger and/or alliances of the various bodies that might exist in a place to undertake similar support for the local voluntary sector. This would ensure more focus, greater efficiency and a single voice for the sector.

CVS and equivalent bodies should also ensure that they are representative of the local VCS and need to be able to demonstrate that they are. They need to have excellent and transparent governance. They can use technology and other modern means to connect with the local sector to strengthen their voice and representative roles.

They can and should build relations across the public sector with politicians and officials; and with other local representative bodies from the business and other sectors. They should be ready and willing to play a leadership role in civil society and contributing to place shaping.

CVSs and their equivalent must also increase the drive to find new forms of income. The hard fact is that many are unlikely to receive sufficient finance from the public sector for the foreseeable future - a more diverse revenue base is essential.

Some CVS and equivalent bodies have diversified to support the development of local social and community enterprise - for example Community Action Hampshire has established a School for Social Entrepreneurs.

They can foster, broker and support consortia of VCS organisations and collaboration with the business sector.

There could be opportunities to forge partnerships with colleges and schools to advance sector awareness and training. There could be opportunities to broker social investment arrangements for local social sector organisations.

Some CVS and equivalent bodies are contracting with local authorities and others to deliver public services. This can work but it is very important to manage any conflict of role as the local sector's voice, and also competitive conflicts with local VCS members.

The provision of shared and collective services to the local VCS and wider social sector - e.g. procurement, 'back office' support, bid writing and contract advice, accommodation, recruitment, IT and social media, volunteer centre (as many already do) - can be beneficial to CVS as a means of supporting members and as a source of revenue, and to the local VCS as a reliable source of lower cost services.

At a time of far less money and rising uncertainty, there is an increasing need for a strong and effective local voluntary and community sector - offering services, providing voice and fostering community based social action. The public sector and local government in particular should recognise this. It should respect the value and contribution of a thriving independent local VCS.

It is time for local government and the VCS to find common cause; and one practical means would be for local government to support strong, effective and representative local councils for voluntary service and community social action. This is the means to stronger local economies and communities.