OPINION: Hot Issue - Should community groups work with local government?

Many community-based organisations work in partnership with and receive funding from local authorities. But a report launched last week by think-tank Demos found that some groups are concerned that working with the state may compromise their independence and put added pressure on their resources.

David Tyler, national director, Community Matters

YES

I say yes, but only if they want to. Thousands of community groups and organisations have been engaged in non-service delivery activity for many years. This includes campaigning, environmental issues, recreation activities and generally improving their community through voluntary action. They may be small and happy to stay that way.

We must respect their right to exist independently, and take account of their local services when planning new ones. For some community groups and organisations, the only way to preserve this will be to engage with government to provide funding. The Government must recognise the unique added value community groups bring to this activity, such as good local knowledge and relationships and an ability to retain funds in the locality.

They must put pressure on larger voluntary and statutory service deliverers to work with those groups rather than always delivering themselves.

Helen McCarthy, co-author of the report Inside Out: Rethinking Inclusive Communities

YES

Community groups should not reject out of hand opportunities to play a larger role in local decision-making. But it is true that the policy framework doesn't guarantee them an equal voice.

A new report from Demos showed how hard it is for community-based organisations working with marginalised communities to deal with statutory services.

Despite the level of investment pouring into area-based initiatives, many community groups are put off by the jargon and time-consuming procedures associated with partnerships.

The distinctive value of community-based organisations rests on their capacity to develop high levels of trust within their local areas. So it's hardly surprising that the sector is largely less than enthusiastic about the present arrangements for partnership working. Until there is a prospect of genuine collaboration and power sharing, community groups will continue to treat local partnerships with caution.

Nia Higginbotham, senior organiser, Trefnu Cymunedol Cymru

NO

The strength of the community sector lies in its informal, grass-roots nature, and its ability to react quickly to local change. Unfortunately, in order to obtain funding and be recognised in government-sponsored partnerships, community groups face increasingly bureaucratic demands. Often they have to adapt their focus to obtain money and employ full-time specialist staff to undertake the complex form filling.

The very strengths of the community sector are being undermined in the processes designed to fund and support community groups. The authorities need to take more risks in backing community ventures, allow bottom-up definitions of the task and find creative means of holding them accountable.

There is a need to find innovative ways of funding which do not make community groups pale reflections of local authorities or large professionalised voluntary agencies.

Partnerships work by bringing different kinds of groups together, and the challenge for government is to risk allowing community groups to operate to their strengths.

Sister Una McCreesh, community leader, Telco

NO

Ideally it sounds a fine thing but "he who pays the piper calls the tune".

Local authorities with their objectives, targets and initiatives are too often accessible only by a tiptoe walk on bureaucratic eggshells or a patient trawl into black holes.

I come from a "highly successful" local authority, which has undoubted good will and wins national accolades annually. My personal experience, however, is of an increasingly remote and intangible body, which ordinary community groups have little power to influence. Immediacy gets lost in consultative system upon system.

So even in areas of shared concern such as a living wage, there seems to be no flexible way in which the voice of local groups can be presented.

A valuable contribution therefore gets lost and potentially responsive local people give up.

As an active and concerned local resident, I am keen to work within the local structure I have helped to elect. But having cast my vote here for 40 years, local government seems less local than ever.

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