Interview: Steve Wyler

The chief executive of Locality says the government's policies of localism and the big society have always been on the agenda of the community sector

Steve Wyler
Steve Wyler

It's been a busy few months for Steve Wyler. Since the start of the year he's overseen a merger between the Development Trusts Association - where he had been chief executive since 2000 - and Bassac, the membership body for more than 600 community organisations, to form a new charity, Locality. It officially began life at the start of this month.

Locality, of which he is chief executive, has also found favour with the Office for Civil Society, which has given it not only a £15m contract to deliver the community organisers programme, but also £496,570 from its strategic partner transition programme.

This was a 60 per cent increase on the combined amount received by the DTA and Bassac in the previous strategic partners programme, and came at a time when almost every other partner had their funding cut.

Locality's popularity in Whitehall has raised concerns at the National Coalition for Independent Action about whether the organisation lacks the necessary distance from government to represent community organisations properly.

Wyler seems an unlikely target for accusations of cronyism: a long-term advocate of local action, he once took time off work to write a history of the community movement and speaks passionately about the need to improve local innovation and independence. "We haven't signed up to the government agenda," he says. "Localism is our agenda and has been for many years. The government has aligned itself with us."

He describes the community organisers contract as an example of "the principles we've advocated being taken seriously". He adds: "We feel we can run this programme, maintain our independence and speak truth to power."

Big society criticism

Nevertheless, he says he supports much of what the government is trying to do. He thinks the third sector has been too critical of the big society idea, although he thinks this happened largely because the government took the wrong approach.

"There's been a tendency for it to adopt a 'year-zero' approach when implementing the big society, as if all the organisations that could deliver it had to be invented from scratch," he says.

"Some people have made simplistic and damaging assessments of it. And the scepticism is entirely understandable because it's being introduced at a time of massive public spending cuts, which are falling disproportionately on our sector. But that doesn't invalidate the core idea. The fundamental ideas are good ones, although we believe some of the detail is still weak."

He says that the third sector should take back ownership of the idea. "We should liberate it from government and reclaim it for ourselves," he says. "The core concepts of the big society have belonged to our sector all along. We should make it clear that they were our ideas first."

Wyler argues that the community organisers programme won't repeat the mistake made by other government initiatives of failing to acknowledge existing good work.

"We felt it was important it wasn't free-floating," he says. "If it is introduced into communities as if nothing currently exists, it won't work. This programme can provide services that existing organisations aren't providing, but it must be grounded in their work."

Community organisers

He disagrees with the view of Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory of Social Change, that the programme will duplicate work already being done by existing organisations. Unlike traditional community workers, who he says often serve the needs of particular interest groups, individuals or councils for voluntary service, which support the existing infrastructure, the 5,000 new community organisers will be non-aligned.

"They are responsible for talking with local people, assessing the problems they feel need solving and helping them form associations to solve those problems," says Wyler.

He also regards the government's interest in localism as an opportunity to rebalance relations between large and small charities. "We believe community should be at the centre of the third sector, and of society as a whole, rather than on the periphery," he says. "In the past, there's been a tendency in the wider voluntary sector policy for community organisations to get a bit lost.

"There's an overused caricature of community meaning amateurish and ineffective, which is not the case among the kind of organisations coming together in our movement. The sector needs to demonstrate that community can be high-quality and aspirational. It can make real change happen in a sustained way in the most challenging neighbourhoods."

Read more Third Sector interviews

CV

2011: Chief executive, Locality

2000: Director, DTA

1995: Freelance work, including interim chief executive roles at London Voluntary Service Council, Safe in the City and the Baring Foundation, and adviser to various grant-making trusts, homelessness agencies and regeneration projects

1992: Director, Homeless Network

1988: Head of the community networks unit, then assistant director, LVSC

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