Kevin Curley: Councils for voluntary service are suffering, but do need to restructure

Local authority spending cuts are the main reason for the crisis, says our columnist, but CVSs have to be willing to change

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

I've spent more than 20 years working in councils for voluntary service all over the country, so you would expect me to feel a sense of crisis right now.

Somerset County Council has withdrawn all funding to CVSs and Nottinghamshire will end funding next March. In Worcestershire, CVS funding has been diverted to a voucher scheme run by the local authority, which will give local charities small amounts of money to buy advice and support from 'any qualified provider'. In Northumberland, CVSs and the rural community councils have lost their grants and the council is funding a group of consultants called Connect4Change to provide sector support services.

So we are witnessing the destruction of representative, member-owned organisations mandated by the local voluntary sector to defend their interests and to provide them with support. In some counties, nothing will replace the CVS; elsewhere, consultants and other non-accountable opportunists will provide short-term support services. They will make their money and move on when the contracts end.

Why has this happened? The cuts in local government funding are the primary reason. In Nottinghamshire, councillors ask: "How can we keep on funding infrastructure when we are cutting front-line services?" It's a tough question. Sector leaders have to argue that continued investment in CVSs and RCCs is essential if voluntary organisations are to be sustained and people supported to form new community groups and charities.

But CVSs are not under threat only because of the cuts. Conversations with council officers in Worcestershire show dissatisfaction with the performance of CVSs and volunteer centres. The council believes these traditional providers of support services are meeting neither the needs of local groups nor the local authority's desire for an expanded network of charities equipped to deliver public services.

I also get a clear message from councillors, officers and front-line sector leaders in some counties that they think CVSs and RCCs failed to restructure by using the money available for six years from both Capacitybuilders and the Big Lottery Fund's Basis programme. The limitations of small, rural, district-level, badly funded CVSs were tackled by mergers in Cumbria, Warwickshire and Buckinghamshire - but neglected in too many counties. The new money available through the Transforming Local Infrastructure fund until September 2013 looks like the last chance for rural CVSs to convince both local councils and their own member groups they are prepared to change.

But there is also a challenge here for local government. It's too easy to let CVSs and RCCs close on the grounds that front-line services are the priority. We need some joint work from Navca, the NCVO, the Local Government Association and the communities department to address this threat. And it's needed right now.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser and former chief executive of Navca

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