Charities and councils being at loggerheads won’t help local people

Across the country, relationships between the councils and charities seem strained or even, in places, broken beyond repair.

Some commentators attribute this depressing picture to the impact of austerity, as well as the spread of neoliberal politics and a fixation with competitive tendering.

Sadly, there are indeed many instances of misunderstanding and a breakdown in trust between councils and many local voluntary bodies. Some charities feel that councils have disproportionately cut their funding or treat them more harshly when placing contracts, than they would if dealing with local businesses.

The relationship between voluntary bodies and councils has always varied from one place to another. It has often been confused and even contradictory, even though many councillors are themselves trustees of local charities, working with them at council and community/ward levels, and referring residents to them for support and advice.

Some councillors and council officers take offence when local voluntary organisations speak up for their members and beneficiaries. Some councils don’t like being challenged, left out of policy development, or react adversely when a voluntary organisation declines to take on services. Many are wary of recognising local voluntary groups as a legitimate voice of a local community or neighbourhood.

Vibrant and effective voluntary bodies do not aspire to be agents of the state nor a version of private companies

That said, some sound examples of partnership working do exist. Insightful local government leaders know the voluntary sector can complement and contribute to their mission to shape the surrounding community.

It is encouraging to hear of charity leaders in Walsall talk about the positive way in which the council has engaged the sector in policy development, and wider place co-ordination. In Wigan, the council has placed teams drawn from the council, the police and other local agencies in volunteer-run community centre hubs. And in Greater Manchester, mayor Andy Burnham has reached out to the voluntary sector as he develops policy and practice. This should be the model for all elected mayors and council leaders.

Preston council has shifted towards a progressive public procurement process, which takes social and environmental concerns into consideration, and has been much heralded. Such an approach should enhance public service opportunities for the local voluntary sector, and see it more involved in the commissioning and procurement process themselves. Other councils including Lambeth in London have also recognised the opportunity to link purchasing and contracting with building local community resilience. And Kingston borough council has been working with Kingston Voluntary Action to develop its grant strategy.

We need to build on such examples of good practice. That could start with voluntary bodies and councils all making a renewed commitment to understand each other better, including their values, objectives, constraints and governance.

What matters – as highlighted by NAVCA, the national body for local infrastructure bodies(pdf) –is that councils recognise the most effective local groups are those which the voluntary sector itself creates, owns and controls. Voluntary organisations are about more than just service delivery and certainly more than just delivering public services through contracts. They can add little value when constrained by over-prescriptive contract specifications and/or underfunded contracts.

The counter argument is voluntary bodies must respect the need to be selective with resources when money is tight. Some charities have come to expect council grant funding as an automatic entitlement with no strings attached. Even in the days of plenty, this was wrong.

There will always be some contracting and grant aid for services – but this needs to be fully funded to allow charitable groups to innovate and be responsive to need. Research from the Lloyds Bank Foundation(pdf) highlights the current commissioning process is a major threat to smaller charities in particular. Small and medium-sized charities have lost up to 44% of their income from public bodies. To start with, commissioners need to increase their understanding through a more collaborative approach, use simpler grant funding arrangements, and place more emphasis on the social and long term value that can be achieved.

However, all parties involved need to realise the council–charity relationship is about much more than commissioning, procurement and contracting. Vibrant and effective voluntary bodies do not aspire to be agents of the state nor a version of private companies. When councils coerce them in this direction, they miss a huge opportunity and deny local communities something very special.