Gateshead, with a population of more than 200,000 according to the census of 2011, was the first metropolitan borough in England to lose its local infrastructure charity when, in March 2016, Gateshead Council pulled the funding for the Gateshead Voluntary Organisations Council. It remains the only major urban area in England outside London that has no CVS or similar organisation.
Its closure was due to a range of factors, but I'm told that many council officers regretted the decision. Michelle Booth, social enterprise and entrepreneurship specialist at the council, said: "GVOC has been a trusted partner in developing the third-sector economy in Gateshead for many years and will be very much missed."
Seizing an opportunity or responding to local need, depending on your point of view, Newcastle CVS did a deal with Gateshead Council and established a Gateshead support and development team. Sally Young, chief executive of Newcastle CVS, told me: "We are providing voluntary organisations in Gateshead with the support they need to set up new services, fund their projects and have influence."
Against this background, Young has just published Doing Good in Gateshead, which looks at the size of the voluntary sector in the borough, its resources and the challenges if faces as austerity deepens. This is a good read for anyone who wants to understand what is happening to our sector in a big urban area.
The report's findings are based on 117 survey responses and interviews. Seventy per cent of respondents said that demand for services had increased in the past year, with the key challenge being the consequences of welfare reforms. Growing poverty, the cost of social care, tougher benefit sanctions, reductions in council services and the growing marginalisation of vulnerable people are increasing pressure on many respondents. Unsurprisingly, insufficient funding is the biggest challenge for local organisations, with the recruitment and retention of volunteers a close second.
Young said: "The findings are not surprising to those of us who know the sector in Gateshead, but the figures on its breadth and scope are illuminating and illustrate what could be achieved if the sector was properly supported and involved."
So what will happen to support for Gateshead's voluntary sector in the future? Many people are pleased with the initiative Newcastle CVS took when GVOC went down. Ian Wolstenholme, chief officer of Age UK Gateshead, said: 'The Gateshead team is an invaluable resource. It has found us funding streams we were unaware of and brought new organisations and community members into our partnership networks."
I challenged Young to explain how Newcastle CVS could represent and advocate for the voluntary sector in a different area. I suggested it was vital that Gateshead groups own the organisation that spoke on their behalf and held it accountable. Young conceded that if Gateshead Council continued to fund the support and development team, she would change the constitution and the name of Newcastle CVS to reflect its new "two boroughs" status. This looks to me like a good way forward.
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser