Councils for voluntary service and equivalent local infrastructure organisations occupy a unique place in the voluntary sector. They not only provide practical support and training to voluntary organisations in the areas where they operate, but also have been the voice of the local sector, representing it and speaking up on its behalf.
But the past five years have been tough for these organisations. The scaling back of local authority grants - traditionally a staple source of funding and the closure of central government grants programme such as Capacitybuilders has made life hard for many of them.
The coalition government's one-off £30m Transforming Local Infrastructure programme, which provided funding to 74 partnerships between infrastructure bodies, also led to a number of mergers, most notably in Suffolk where 10 voluntary sector support organisations came together to form Community Action Suffolk.
Figures compiled by Navca, the national body that represents local infrastructure organisations, show that about 70 of them have been lost as a result of either merger or closure since 2010. Not all in the sector consider that such consolidation is necessarily a bad thing, but some argue that the creation of larger local infrastructure bodies makes them less responsive to the needs of the local sector and individual communities.
Last year, the National Coalition for Independent Action, an alliance of individuals and organisations that promote the principles of independent voluntary and community action, published a report bemoaning the current state of local infrastructure. In Homes for Local Radical Action: the position and role of local umbrella groups, the coalition - which is known for its hard-line stance on issues such as the privatisation of public services - argued that infrastructure bodies were acting as "subcontractors to the state or the private sector". The report says: "Over time, such bodies have moved from being described as 'umbrella groups', suggesting spread and shelter... to the current 'infrastructure bodies', which can only remind one of concrete and large - often failing - transport."
For example, many local CVSs have remained quiet on the subject of local authority cuts, even though these have affected their own budgets and those of their members.
In some parts of the country, CVSs also now play a more limited representative role and focus more on providing support services. For example, in Gloucestershire, an area that has a CVS, a separate organisation called the Gloucestershire VCS Alliance has been created to represent independently the views of the voluntary sector.
Neil Cleeveley, chief executive of Navca, disagrees with the pessimistic view of the state of local infrastructure, but concedes that certain aspects of local infrastructures bodies' roles are increasingly difficult to fund and run. He says: "In broad terms, it is the voice work that is going. In the past, that work has been well funded, but now it's under more pressure. In some parts of the country we're moving to a more transactional relationship where the local authority will pay CVSs to run services such as training and support."
He says it has always been more difficult to fund the voice element of the infrastructure bodies' work, largely because funders such as local authorities are naturally cautious of funding programmes that could lead to criticism of them. But he says it is even harder now because money is so tight.
He considers it crucially important that local infrastructure bodies continue to play a campaigning role and challenge those who make the decisions. But he also questions whether it is appropriate for local infrastructure organisations to be seen as the voice of the voluntary sector. "They walk a fine line between speaking up for local organisations and creating a space for local organisations to speak up for themselves," Cleeveley says. "Sometimes it can be patronising for the infrastructure body to be the voice."
Adrian Barritt, chief officer of Adur Voluntary Action, the local infrastructure body covering Shoreham-by-Sea and surrounding areas in West Sussex, and a contributor to last year's NCIA report, believes it is important that local infrastructure bodies continue to play a representative role.
"Councils for voluntary service were established as independent charities with a brief to report and represent local voluntary action and speak out for local needs," he says. "They have an implicit mandate to speak out for the needs of the poorer sectors of the community.
"I'm not going to hark back to a golden era, but over the past 20 years we've had the growth of the contract culture, which has morphed into competitive tendering. It has led to a tension for CVSs between being a genuine voice for local organisations as opposed to a deliverer of services."
Barritt says it is hard for a local CVS to speak out on issues considered party political by the local authority or the government. "One has to be very careful and tactical about what one says," he says. "The fundamental issue is that CVSs are funded by local authorities and we don't have a national funding stream such as, for example, rural community councils. If you lose your local authority funding, you lose your main source of funding."
The lack of sustainable funding for local infrastructure was an issue raised in two reports published earlier this year. Change for Good, produced for Navca by an independent commission and published in January, argued that local infrastructure bodies needed to be financed and should seek support from a variety of sources, including central and local government, charitable trusts and businesses.
Meanwhile, the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector's fourth report, published in February, also called for more core funding and support to be made available, arguing that the reduction in financial support had been a "negative step for the voice of local voluntary organisations".
Cleeveley says that despite the current financial squeeze, many of Navca's members continue to speak out on issues of concern. "For example, Newcastle CVS has spoken out on poverty and Hackney CVS in east London has done work on the misuse of stop-and-search powers," he says. "We and many of our members also support campaigns such as Keep Volunteering Voluntary."
CASE STUDY - NEWCASTLE CVS
Newcastle Council for Voluntary Service remains vocal about the effects of cuts on local people and the local voluntary sector. In the past few years, it has published reports on growing levels of poverty and lobbied the local council about the negative effects of larger contracts on local charities.
It has also been critical of the council's decision to stop offering discounted business rates to charities and reduce the number of forums representing communities and charities in the local area.
But Sally Young, chief executive of Newcastle CVS, says it can be increasingly difficult to get funding to represent the local voluntary sector. "If local authorities are cutting back, it can seem bizarre to them that they should be funding organisations that could cause them problems," she says.
Newcastle CVS has an annual income of about £1m, of which about £170,000 comes from a grant by Newcastle City Council to fund the CVS's core work, which includes its representative role. It also bids for contracts issued by the council and other statutory agencies. Young estimates that it costs about £300,000 a year to deliver its core support work to the local sector. "The only way that many CVSs can generate sufficient funding is to get into service provision," she says. "But that creates conflicts with your members and potential conflicts of interest with organisations such as local authorities because you're becoming a service provider for them."
Young says she understands why some CVSs might focus more on providing training and support and less on being a local representative voice, but she feels that's not appropriate in Newcastle. "We have the experience of local organisations through our development and our networking. When we go to talk to the leader of the council or whoever, we can say these are the real experiences of local organisations."
Young says that Newcastle CVS has recently carried out a study of its members and found that they still rely on it to represent their views. "Even the big powerful organisations ask us to speak up on their behalf," she says. "Often they don't won't to speak out and blot their copy-book."
"If you have a CVS, it needs to have a voice. Otherwise, you might as well be a well-organised business-support organisation. We think the local sector would lose a huge amount if all they received was a bit of basic training and support."
CASE STUDY - HACKNEY CVS
Jake Ferguson, chief executive of Hackney CVS in east London, considers the organisation's voice role to be crucial. "The voice function should underline all that you do as a CVS," he says.
The CVS has an income of about £3.5m a year, of which it gets about £150,000 from Hackney Council to cover its core costs. This helps it to run a range of community forums covering issues, such as domestic violence, which also inform local policy.
It leads a number of consortia of local charities and community groups as well.
While some CVSs have a policy of not competing with other charities for local authority contracts, Hackney CVS does bid to deliver programmes - but only when the commissioner wants a range of local providers involved and one lead organisation. For example, it coordinates lunch clubs for older residents on behalf of the council, but uses local older people's groups to deliver the services.
"There is a view that this is competing with the sector," says Ferguson. "I disagree. When we win contracts, we use local organisations to deliver services and be part of the local solution.
"I think that that's a subtle difference from us competing for services that local voluntary organisations would be doing themselves. By leading consortia and partnerships, we can secure additional money for the sector and support its capacity where needed."
Hackney is a Labour stronghold and Ferguson says the local council and politicians recognise the value of the local voluntary sector. But, like most areas, Hackney is facing budget cuts that will affect the sector.
Ferguson says it has taken the view that it is best for the sector to work alongside the local council to help it make informed decisions about the cuts, rather than oppose them outright.
"CVSs should be in dialogue with the relevant people in the local authority about the future instead of just saying that you shouldn't cut," he says. "We and the leadership in Hackney council don't want these cuts, but they are happening - they're unavoidable."
Ferguson says the CVS is not an arm of the council, but there is no escaping the fact that there is an interdependency between the two organisations. "We cannot be wholly independent, but we won't suppress the sector's voice in any way," he says.
"More than ever, councils and public services need to listen to local organisations that often know first what's happening to the most vulnerable residents. But we must focus on solutions as well as raising issues."
He says that supporting the voice and views of the voluntary sector is what gets him out of bed in the morning. It also helps the CVS establish its priorities. He says: "If you are a responsive CVS, you need to find a way to do the voice work, even if you're not funded directly to do it. Otherwise, you're just a business-support agency."
CASE STUDY - KNOWSLEY COUNCIL FOR VOLUNTARY SERVICE
Pamela Ball became chief executive of Knowsley Council for Voluntary Service two years ago and has had to restructure the Merseyside-based service radically during that time.
She says the organisation was "basically on its knees" when she took over: "Part of that was because we'd had some major cuts from local authorities, and some of it was because it hadn't been a particularly well-run CVS."
Since then she has had to redefine its relationship with statutory agencies because there was an expectation that the CVS would still turn up to meetings to provide advice, even though it was no longer funded to do so. "If you are going to be authentic and honest, you can't sit at the table and give the agencies something for free," she says. "It undermines your relationship."
Ball believes the fact that Knowsley CVS is relatively small - it employs only four staff - and is not totally reliant on one funder has helped it to take such an approach. But as a former trustee of Navca, she believes that some larger CVSs are reluctant "to speak truth to power". She says that when CVSs are receiving money from large councils, they're afraid to say what they think.
There is a strong temptation for CVSs to drift away from their mission by chasing the pots of funding now on offer. Ball says Knowsley CVS has resisted such an approach by creating a core set of values, which it uses to determine whether it is appropriate to take on particular projects. She says: "Sometimes that means we have to say no to work, but it prevents mission drift."
Ball says that although her organisation still speaks up on behalf of the local voluntary sector, it does not like to be viewed as the sole representative voice for the area.
"We have made a conscious decision that no one organisation can be the voice of the sector. In the past, CVSs used to sit on all strategic partnership boards, ticking boxes. We believe that front-line organisations should be sitting on boards and using us to report back to the local sector."