Keep the relationship alive

By | June 12, 2016
Originally published: The MJ

Local government is changing and faces the most severe financial test for many decades, certainly in the experience and memories of both its political and executive leaders.

After more than five years of cuts in central government support, more are planned for the remainder of this Parliament. Worse still, the axe is not falling evenly across local authorities and nor are those wielding this axe taking sufficient account of local needs and the current state of local services in particular areas. What can be done?

cIf local communities and places are to survive and thrive then local government leaders must above all remain optimistic and focus on constructive solutions. Of course, the local government agenda is not just about cuts but also about becoming self-sufficient, generating income and delivering more efficiently, effectively and more smartly.

Above all it is about promoting the interests of place and communities and focusing on community wellbeing.

It is not surprising increasing numbers of local authorities are strengthening their ‘leadership of place’ role. Consequently, they are seeking to garner the resources, expertise and energy of the wider public sector, charities, the voluntary and community sector, local businesses and citizens themselves to be less dependent and more self-sufficient in order to co-produce solutions and co-deliver services.

It is a truism to state local government is and should always be for, of and by, local communities. This is something that can be all too easily lost in the political fog and where technocratic solutions are sought. However, it must never be forgotten by either politicians or officers. The community has to be involved with local government and community organisations, especially community anchors. Other voluntary groups have to be fully engaged with local government on many different levels.

One of the greatest resources in any community is the community itself and those organisations based in, around and serving the community. These may be parish and town councils, community anchor organisations, small and micro-businesses, community groups, tenants’ associations and voluntary organisations. All these have traditionally played key roles in creating strong communities, addressing need and providing a voice for communities.

I believe there is strong evidence progressive local authority leaders are recognising they and their authorities must collaborate with community organisations and directly with communities – sometimes described as ‘double devolution’.

Sadly, this is not universally accepted as necessary by every leader or council. I believe this is a grave error and a substantial missed opportunity. Local government has to reach out to the wide range of voluntary and community groups, irrespective of whether or not they receive public money, in ways that show both respect and understanding.

The voluntary and community sector is rightly ‘precious and protective’ about its independence and its right to speak out on behalf of beneficiaries and communities, even when this may require them to challenge the same public bodies that fund them.

Local authority leaders and their officers should have the confidence to accept this – such independence and voice is core to a pluralistic democracy.

That voice and a related representative capacity along with on-the-ground perspective has much to offer local authorities, including community ward councillors and their partners when they are developing policy or considering budget growth – or more likely, budget cuts.

Local government leaders should actively encourage and facilitate this involvement. If and when the public sector cannot or chooses not to continue to directly provide a service, there may be opportunities for a voluntary and community sector group to take those services over but this can only be successful when the transfer is by mutual agreement, on agreed terms and with adequate time to plan, consult upon and enact the changes.

Far too often, local authorities present a fait accompli to the voluntary and community sector. Often, they have unilaterally and without any discussion, assumed or determined that a voluntary and community group will be willing to take over. This commonly leads to the wrong outcomes. Inevitably, local authority leaders are increasingly talking about prevention and ‘demand management’ and for this the voluntary and community sector has much to offer.

However, this requires adequate time, dialogue, planning and the right financial and other terms in order for the sector to be able to respond positively.

Economic growth is on every local authority’s agenda but this will be most successful when underpinned by social growth and investment in social capital. Voluntary and community sector groups can, in the right circumstances, play a significant role.

Because the local voluntary and community sector is so important to local wellbeing, to addressing so much of local government’s current agenda and to having to address unmet need, it is both ironic and mistaken for so many authorities to be cutting their grant and contract funding to the sector.

In far too many cases and with no thought to the ‘law of unintended consequences’, authorities are significantly cutting or stopping funding to support the local sector infrastructure bodies – typically a council for voluntary service (CVS) – and community anchor organisations which support and develop local volunteering and voluntary and community groups.

Not every local infrastructure group will be brilliant and sadly, some are poor in what they offer and how they act. However, well-funded and respected infrastructure and community anchor groups can offer a great deal to their communities and be of enormous value to local authorities in ensuring the capacity exists locally to address many issues such as community resilience, community cohesion, service provision and democratic engagement.

I urge local authority leaders to speak with their local voluntary sector infrastructure and community anchor bodies and where necessary, with their national representative bodies to explore how they might find common cause for the shared objectives of doing what is best for local communities

A strong, effective, accountable local voluntary and community sector is not a luxury, especially in, during or post-austerity and it never has been. Likewise, strong, effective, accountable local government is essential.

It should be natural for local authorities and the voluntary and community sector to respect their differences and separation while collaborating to promote community wellbeing and addressing need.

should happen in times of plenty, but especially during a period of austerity and cuts. Let’s hope this happens more over the next year or so. After all, local authorities and the local community sector exist to serve the same people.

This dialogue will require bold and sensitive leadership from both local government and the voluntary and community sector at a local level. If there has been a stand-off between the two or if relations have become strained, it is vital to park egos and recent history and focus on the future.

Local authorities and the voluntary sector: establishing shared objectives Conversations should focus on the immediate and the long-term. They should be both strategic and also identify how the local authority can:

  • Support a successful sector-led local infrastructure body accountable to the local sector and local communities.
  • Support inclusive and successful community anchor organisations and in turn enable them to support small local groups.
  • Decide how this could be funded – often best through a grant rather than a contract.
  • Enable local voluntary and community bodies to evolve, change and possibly merge.
  • Ensure local voluntary and community sector groups (not just infrastructure bodies) are involved in strategic policy and financial planning and decision-making and can contribute to wider place-shaping programmes.
  • Jointly develop with the voluntary and community sector the conditions to encourage and nurture social action.
  • Facilitate effective and sustainable community asset transfers.
  • Introduce realistic collective impact and social investment programmes.
  • Foster growth and capacity building across the voluntary and community sector where this will add public value and contribute to wider democratic renewal, wellbeing, prevention and public services agendas.