Interview: Joe Irvin

The new chief executive of Navca says if the big society is going to work, the local society has got to work

Joe Irvin
Joe Irvin

When Kevin Curley became chief executive of the local infrastructure group Navca in 2003, he was already well known in the voluntary sector, having run councils for voluntary service in Hull, Derby and Leicestershire.

Joe Irvin, who succeeded Curley at the local infrastructure umbrella body last month, is a less familiar face. Apart from a short spell as parliamentary affairs director at the RSPB in the 1990s, this is his first job in the voluntary sector.

Irvin has mainly worked for trade unions and politicians. He spent nearly two decades in unions, mainly the Transport & General Workers' Union, where he succeeded Sir Stephen Bubb, now chief executive of Acevo, as a research officer in 1985.

He later became an adviser to the former Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, and an aide to the former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, during his time in Number 10.

Irvin's CV is impressive, but can he shake off the baggage that comes with being so closely associated with the Labour Party, and Brown in particular? "I worked at Number 10 for three years, but for 32 years I have worked elsewhere," he says.

He enjoyed being part of Brown's policy unit. "You could get stuck into issues," he says. But he says it was also a difficult time because the long Labour administration was drawing to a close and it was hard to get things done.

Irvin was rather unflatteringly portrayed as one of Brown's bruisers in Back From the Brink, the recent political memoir by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling. Darling linked Irvin with what he called the "attack dogs" of the former Prime Minister who unleashed the "forces of hell" on him when he predicted the downturn would be the worst for 60 years. He also wrote that Irvin was one of three No 10 officials "raging" at his special adviser, Catherine MacLeod.

Irvin denies all charges. "I don't think I was either an attack dog or a force of evil," he says. Nobody who knows him, he says, would describe him as aggressive.

Irvin describes his Labour days as "water under the bridge" several times during the interview. "I'm here to work for Navca," he says. "If government is doing things to help the local voluntary sector, I will praise it, whatever colour it is, local or national. But if it harms it, I will say so."

He won't reveal whether he is still a Labour Party member. "That's a private matter," he says, emphasising that professionally he will no longer take part in party politics.

To illustrate his political neutrality, he says his first meeting was with Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society. "It was very amicable," he says. "I have no problem working with him and I don't think he has with me."

Irvin wanted to return to the voluntary sector after the 2010 general election. "I wanted to work for something I believe in," he says. He freelanced for a while until the vacancy for the £75,000 top job at Navca came up.

He talks about Navca being a movement, which chimes with much of his past work in trade unionism, campaigning and community activism.

"It's not just a network - it has fundamental principles and beliefs," he says. "People are in it because they believe in it."

Irvin praises his predecessor. "Kevin did a great job building Navca up," he says. "It's respected." But he is reluctant to compare their leadership styles. "I will be what I am," he says.

Unlike Curley, Irvin will lead the Sheffield-based organisation from his home in Islington, London. "It's a national job," he says. He will divide his time between the two cities and says he will visit at least one member organisation every week for the first few months.

Navca shed about half its staff last year after its income fell from about £3m to £1.5m, largely because of the loss of grants from the Big Lottery Fund and the infrastructure quango Capacitybuilders, which closed. Irvin says further job losses are unlikely. "The tough decisions have already been made," he says.

He does, however, cite "drawing up plans to see us through the medium and long term" as one of his priorities, along with ensuring Navca has strong relationships with government departments.

He says it's too early to say what those plans will be, but localism and the rapidly changing environment in which support charities operate are themes he keeps referring to.

"Everybody has to find new ways of working, because society is changing," says Irvin. He says there will be winners and losers and Navca has a key role supporting both.

"If the big society is going to work, then the local society has got to work," he says. "That's the message I am trying to get across to government and anyone else who will listen."

CV:

2010: Freelance
2007: Prime Minister's office: Policy Unit and then political secretary
2006: Director of public affairs, BAA
2003: Director of policy, TGWU
2001: MSc at Birkbeck
1997: Special adviser to Deputy PM
1996: Adviser to deputy leader of opposition
1995: Director of parliamentary affairs, RSPB
1980: Various roles at the TGWU
1977: Policy officer, TUC

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