Economic growth unsustainable without strong local charities

Reading the recently published House of Lords Select Committee report on charities (‘Strong Charities for a Stronger Society’ – and recent New Start articles on regeneration, social and economic investment and localism, I have been struck by the correlation between them.
It is increasingly accepted that economic regeneration and growth must not only be inclusive but it has to be accompanied by serious and sustained investment in social capital, and should be locally led and focussed.

As the House of Lords Select Committee identified, many small and medium charities are local in their focus and indeed, are locally led. They are locally resourced – by local volunteers, locally employed staff and by local public and private financial support. They are at the heart of local communities and, in many cases, they are the heart of those communities. Indeed, as the Report and the Select Committee Chair, Baroness Pitkeathley states so clearly, “charities are the eyes, ears and conscience of society”.

I am strongly of the view that responsible for designing and securing inclusive economic growth can gain significant benefits from accessing those eyes and ears, and being nudged by that conscience. Clearly, charities cannot and should not replace democratically elected local government, but they can and often do complement and supplement its place-shaping role. They can challenge and propose policies and ideas. And they can be a means of practical social action to implement change and to offer services.

Baroness Pitkeathly has stated that: “Charities are the lifeblood of society. They play a fundamental role in our civil life and do so despite facing a multitude of challenges. Yet for them to continue to flourish, it is clear that they must be supported and promoted.

“We found that charities lead the way with innovation, but that this is at risk of being stifled by the ‘contract culture’. And while advocacy is a sign of a healthy democracy, and is a central part of charities’ role, this role has been threatened by Government.

“We hope that charities will be encouraged by this report; that the Government will respect their role; and that in addition it will value the connections charities have with all sections of society, and encourage the vital scrutiny they provide”

I suggest that this message to central government should be targeted even more at local government, wider civil society and the business sector. In particular, it needs to be aimed at those responsible for local and sub-regional, inclusive growth programmes. It is vital that these increasingly powerful bodies and individuals should never forget that community social action, which is often (though not exclusively) facilitated by charities based in the same community as the action takes place, is also the lifeblood of sustainable growth. They have to understand that without strong communities growth will be distorted and ultimately unsustainable. They need to listen to charities and communities; they need to enable them to contribute to the growth agenda; and they need to support them.

Much of the local and sub-regional growth agenda is understandably (and rightly) focused on physical infrastructure such as transport, roads and rail, public service buildings and housing; and on supporting the development of skills and entrepreneurialism. However, I strongly suggest that some modest element of this investment should also be used to support the development of a strong and effective local charity and voluntary community sector infrastructure, which can ‘enable’ and support charities and social action. Investment in both forms of infrastructure should be seen as complementary and inter-dependent in their contribution to the inclusive growth agenda.

The House of Lords report has much serious and important content and I very strongly believe that it has as much to offer those charged with leading the local and sub-regional inclusive growth.

I am also clear that it will be community led innovation and social action that will ultimately underpin sustainable growth.