18/03/2012 15:53 GMT | Updated 18/05/2012 06:12 BST

Localism Requires Strong Independent Voluntary Sector

Recent conversations with colleagues in the voluntary and community sector have made me sit up and think hard about the relationship between local authorities and local infrastructure bodies.

Recent conversations with colleagues in the voluntary and community sector have made me sit up and think hard about the relationship between local authorities and local infrastructure bodies.

Traditionally, many of these bodies have been supported financially by local authorities and other public agencies such as the NHS through grant funding. This provided some sense of 'independence' for councils of voluntary and community service (CVSs) and similar infrastructure organisations. However, the advent of a commissioning, procurement and contracting culture across much of the public sector is in danger of creating very different destructive relations between the voluntary and community, and public sectors.

Local community and voluntary organisations ought to be free to determine who, if anyone, should provide infrastructure support and this should be a decision of the public sector. Local authorities do not proscribe to local businesses what organisation should form the functions of a chamber of commerce. So why should a council decide who will represent and support the local social sector? And yet this is precisely what happens when this role is subject to a tendering and contracting process. Such a situation is indefensible.

More bizarrely still, some contracts have been 'removed' from existing sector-based organisations that previously commanded the sector's confidence - and simply handed to business sector organisations! This is crazy.

Of course, the problems don't stop with the selection of the organisation to fulfil duties and activities on behalf of the voluntary and community sector. The public sector and usually local authorities are also too often seeking to decide 'what', and more often than not, 'how' such functions will be undertaken. Inevitably, this is undermining the independence of the voluntary sector, it is disempowering it, and it is inconsistent with both localism and the "Big Society".

One of the key characteristics of strong local infrastructure bodies such as CVSs, is to represent the interests of their members and their users. And from time to time, this may bring them into conflict with a local authority or other public agencies. This is not a bad thing - rather it is a healthy dynamic. They must be free to speak up for the community and their members, unfettered by their own contractual relationships with the same agencies.

At a time of major change and challenge for the voluntary and community sector, effective and accountable local sector leadership is essential - as is a strong independent voice speaking confidently, constructively and intelligently to the public sector.

Small community organisations in particular require support, access to advice and support services, and a sense that they are part of a local movement. Mergers and major change across the sector are going to be increasingly important. These are all matters which CVSs and other local infrastructure bodies are and should be facilitating. However, to perform this role credibly, they have to be seen as the creatures of their sector and not under undue influence from or feel under the dark overbearing shadow of the public sector).

Rather than obsessing with control, local authorities and other public sector agencies will, in the long run, gain far more in the way of creativity, innovation and social entrepreneurial spirit by enhancing their support for local infrastructure bodies, and doing so in ways that protect and value their independence, governance and the sector's ownership and influence.

Absolutely, there is a case for some rationalisation of local infrastructure, but this should be allowed to happen naturally, led and driven by the sector - not the public sector. The Government Transforming Local Infrastructure funding is being used to explore these opportunities and much more. Do we need several such nboides in the same place? The answer is probably not in most cases.

And further, the role of infrastructure bodies also has to evolve and needs to do so rapidly in order to match emerging contemporary requirements. The nature of the public sector, the welfare state, the relationship between the state and citizen and localism are changing so must the community sector. These changes must and will happen - there is no avoiding them. They will be different in different places.

However, many of the challenges, which much of the sector came into being to address, including poverty - in and out of work; discrimination and marginalisation; physical and community deprivation; and a lack of capacity in some communities persist. The sector and its infrastructure bodies must never abandon their core mission.

Meanwhile, there is a need for an urgent debate in localities between the voluntary and community sector, and local authorities and their public sector partners to re-shape the relationship and in particular their funding arrangements, to ensure that the sector has the knowledge and benefits of strong, effective, and accountable but independent infrastructure support and advice. Recent disproportionate cuts to voluntary sector funding; attempts to by-pass or ignore infrastructure bodies; and a doctrinal abandonment of grants have all been very unhelpful.

There may be opportunities for alternative sources of funding too - and not just lottery funds: I am thinking here of new community capacity funds involving local business-public - social sector partnerships.

As they redefine their role to meet local circumstances local infrastructure bodies could also consider how they can generate revenue from social entrepreneurial activity, partnerships with businesses and in some cases delivering contracted public services but only when this does not conflict with or compromise their core values and mission.

A new relationship between local government and the community and voluntary sector is urgently needed based on a respected and independent sector with its own support organisations