Interview: Greg Clark

The decentralisation minister says some councils are responding well and others are responding badly to the government's call for them to avoid disproportionate cuts in funding to the voluntary sector

Greg Clark
Greg Clark

Greg Clark is keen to send out a tough message to councils that the government will not tolerate disproportionate cuts to the voluntary sector.

Clark, whose remit as decentralisation minister in the Communities and Local Government department brings him into constant contact with local authorities and community groups, says some councils, both Labour and Conservative, are guilty of a bad approach to the sector. Those that cut its funding disproportionately will be penalised by the CLG unless they change their ways, he says.

"There are good Labour councils and bad Labour councils, and there are good Conservative councils and bad Conservative councils," he says.

"They should not be retrenching into the town hall and protecting those services that have always been carried out by people in the council," he says. "They should be looking to generate efficiencies in their own administration first."

Statutory force

Clark insists that he "absolutely supports" the recent warning by the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, that statutory force could be used against councils that cut the voluntary sector's budget disproportionately. "I have a clear view, and Eric has a clear view, that it is absolutely wrong to target the voluntary sector," he says. "Absolutely, I support what he says."

Clark stresses that using statutory powers would be a last resort, to be used only if a council refused to change a policy that involved disproportionate cuts to the sector.

"People in local government tell us they are prepared to act reasonably and don't need to be forced by law into doing so," he says. "We are encouraged by that, but we are not going to drop the issue. Quite the reverse: we will act in a statutory way if it's necessary."

Clark is not, however, prepared to say what these statutory means would entail. "Before we reveal what we have in mind as to the statutory requirements, we should give councils a chance to demonstrate that they're not necessary," he says.

Clark blames the shadow cabinet for the failure of some councils to protect the voluntary sector from severe spending cuts. "I'm not a partisan politician, but I've been disappointed by the response from the Labour front bench," he says. "Caroline Flint, the shadow communities secretary, has refused to express an opinion on whether any council should disproportionately cut the voluntary sector.

"There are lots of Labour councils in the country that will look to her leadership on this. To contrive to be mute on the behaviour of Labour councils that could take a lead from her on how they treat the voluntary sector is culpable."

Increased funding

However, he stresses that the outlook is not all bleak: some councils, such as Reading and Tunbridge Wells, which is in his own constituency, are increasing their funding for the sector. "For progressive councils, increasing voluntary sector funding is an enormous opportunity to reshape the delivery of services in a way that's better for the community," he says.

"The way to transform a council is to allow the voluntary sector to break out of the walled garden it has been confined to, in which charities are told there is a grants programme and a limited set of contracts, and that is all they have access to. The right to challenge, which is in the Localism Bill, will give more charities and community groups the ability to run more services."

Clark says there are more gentle means than statutory force to tackle local authorities that choose to cut their funds for the sector. He says he is a big believer that transparency can help to mitigate cuts, and has asked all councils to publish figures on their budgets for voluntary groups. "Councils should not be able to make cuts behind closed doors and not be accountable to the public," he says.

So Clark's analysis of the local authority funding landscape appears to be that some councils are good, some are bad and all need to be nudged - and if necessary forced - into protecting the sector from disproportionate cuts.

The analysis is based on the belief that the voluntary sector should play a leading role in the creation of the big society, which the Prime Minister, David Cameron, says is one of the key themes of his coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.

But it is not a view shared by everyone in local government; many argue that it is unreasonable for a government that says it is committed to localism to impose swingeing cuts on councils and then order them to protect the budgets for voluntary organisations.

CV

2010: Minister for decentralisation
2008: Shadow secretary of state for energy and climate change
2006: Shadow minister for charities, social enterprise and volunteering
2005: Elected MP for Tunbridge Wells
2001: Director of policy, Conservative Party
1997: Controller of commercial policy, BBC
1996: Lecturer, London School of Economics

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