There is much talk across local government and among commentators about the need and desirability of strengthening community power. This is often accompanied by the promotion of voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations, including charities taking on the delivery of public services, which previously would have been managed within and by local authorities.
The assumption (one assumes) is that VCS bodies will either contract with local authorities or other public bodies or provide these services using their charitable income or through volunteers.
The problem is that the latter policy stance ‘assumes’ volunteering is a free activity for VCS organisations –which it most certainly is not – and that charitable funds are for subsidising the state, which they are not and, of course, that presently most VCS organisations are severely financial challenged. Furthermore, volunteers should not be substitute for well remunerated employees.
It is not surprising that such considerations of how to involve the VCS sector are gaining traction, given a combination of the financial pressures that local government has had to endure after a decade of austerity and cuts to central Government funding; the financial impact of COVID-19; the prospects of more essential COVID-19-related expenditure and further loss of income, and more years of austerity ahead.
As a firm advocate for democratic local government and for a vibrant voluntary and community sector, I see the benefit of a close partnership between the two. Indeed, both share many, many objectives and hopes.
However, such a partnership needs to be valued and nurtured at both the local and the national level. And I do worry that unilateral action by local authorities and false or unrealistic expectations about the capacity and the role of local VCS groups and organisations has the clear potential to create tensions, misunderstanding, mistrust and even long-term divisions between these groups and local government. If this were to happen, both would be poorer, and communities would lose out.
To avoid such a tragedy there needs to be goodwill and constructive dialogue between local government leaders and the VCS, both locally and nationally. And there has to be mutual respect and mutual understanding.
There should be many opportunities nationally for local government, the VCS and the wider charity sector to find common voice to: lobby for greater central Government funding for local authorities; address social and economic injustice; tackle the climate emergency; promote a fairer, more inclusive economy; and to advocate for greater political and economic devolution in England. However, this requires strong collaboration between the respective national representative bodies.
At the local level, there should be constant dialogue to address the range of social, economic and environmental challenges in specific places. And such conversations have to open and honest.
There should be sensible expectations – especially by local authority leaders – about what the local VCS can or would wish to do. And it must understand the values, motivation and capacity of the VCS. The reality is that many VCS groups are very small and have little capacity to do other than the core activities for which they exist. They have little capacity for attending multiple meetings or responding to complex consultations, however important these may be. Local authorities should provide support for this engagement and they should ensure the processes are not burdensome, bureaucratic or uninviting. I suggest that to facilitate effective dialogue, local authority leaders should adopt the following ‘political’ stances:
- No expectation that any VCS organisation is going to be prepared to become a surrogate or agent or contractor for the state, including the local authority.
- A pledge that they will not replace paid public sector employees with volunteers.
- A commitment that if a VCS organisation delivers all or part of a public service for the local authority, it will be fully remunerated, allowing for some surplus to support the organisation’s functionality and development and not be subject to a market-based competitive procurement process. It will not be expected to take risks it is not comfortable in taking . It will have its right to advocate and challenge the local authority guaranteed.
- VCS involvement in major local authority decision-making, including budgeting, service design and commissioning, economic policy and programmes, etc.
- Respect the right of VCS organisations to campaign and advocate.
- A commitment to financial support for the local VCS and its local representative bodies, to build and sustain sector capacity irrespective of whether it is delivering public services or not.
- A willingness to transfer community assets where appropriate to communities and the VCS.
In most cases, local authorities will gain much more if they engage with the VCS on this basis and do not simply see them a means of ‘fixing’ their immediate problems/budget/delivery issues. Joint solution-finding and working in partnership with the VCS to understand and support communities is always going to be much more advantageous.
In turn, the VCS must be clear about what it wants, both collectively and at the individual organisation level, from a positive relationship with local government. It must be clear on the terms of any engagement. It must be ready to say ‘no’ but at the same time, be ready to be responsive and solution orientated, and not defensive, rigid and inwardly focused.
The pandemic has demonstrated the importance and value of social activism and community responses – which must be nurtured by both the VCS and local government.
It would be too easy to take the wrong lessons from this collective spontaneity. Community solidarity and social activism should not be interpreted as a willingness by the VCS to step in where the state should act and provide; nor used as an excuse for offloading responsibilities on to the VCS.
Such approaches will simply sour what can and must be strong long term relationships built on respect, trust, and shared ambition for places and communities.
John Tizard is a strategic adviser and commentator