I was pleased to take part in the recent Plymouth VCSE Conference 2016, which paved the way for the launch of a new local infrastructure charity.
Jacky Clift, a member of the Zebra Collective, which is leading the work to set up the new charity by April 2017, was brimming with confidence: "We need a new infrastructure body now because the old ways won't work any more."
Clift sees the creation of Plymouth VCSE as the legacy of the Plymouth Octopus Project, which, under her leadership, has been funded by Plymouth City Council for three years to provide support to the voluntary sector. Strong support for Plymouth VCSE came from public sector leaders who spoke at the conference. Carole Burgoyne, assistant chief executive at the city council, discussed the health and social care integrated commissioning arrangements that are well advanced in the city and have a pooled budget of £462m this year. She saw a vital role for the new organisation in community development, recognising the importance of grass-roots groups such as lunch clubs.
Jerry Clough, chief operating officer of the Northern, Eastern and Western Devon Clinical Commissioning Group, initially seemed less supportive: "We are a small organisation with a huge budget. We need to get out of our relationships with voluntary organisations. We simply don't have the staff to manage them."
Clough's CCG is the largest in England, serving 900,000 people, and it has the biggest deficit. He clarified that he saw a role for Plymouth VCSE to administer a grants fund on behalf of the CCG. He said: "We have the biggest integration project in the country. There's an opportunity to deal with austerity by joining things together." It's an admirable ambition, but this is unachievable without a strong organisation to lead the voluntary sector.
Encouragingly, the private sector was also at the conference. David Young, vice-chair of Plymouth Chamber of Commerce, challenged 120 people from local voluntary groups to "act more like the private sector". He urged people to adopt social enterprise models, use loan finance and merge to deal with overcapacity. He saw a crucial role for Plymouth VCSE in "improving the private and voluntary sectors' interface".
Will the council and the CCG fund Plymouth VCSE? It's rare for a local infrastructure charity to thrive without core funding from the local state. Clift is more optimistic: "We can no longer depend on statutory funding. We will charge for membership, services and consultancy. We will also sell our greatest strength - our reach into the community and ability to co-design, consult and deliver." Clift has already secured support from key people in all three sectors. I'm confident she will pull this off next year.
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser