Proper communication with the public and the charity sector should be a "red line" when drawing up devolution deals, MPs and peers heard yesterday.
At a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Charities and Volunteering, Ruth Breidenbach-Roe, policy officer at the community organisations umbrella group Locality, said that there was a "real need to assert the advocacy role of our sector and organisations in the new devolved landscape" and to ensure that charities have an important role in how regional and city devolution deals develop.
A number of devolution deals have been announced in the past few years, and a report from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations earlier this month warned that most charities had not contributed to local devolution plans.
Breidenbach-Roe said: "Some of the frustrations are that this advocacy role cannot be achieved through one seat on one governance board – that's the tokenistic level of what it means to engage with the sector."
She said the government should therefore make engagement with communities and civil society a "red line" when developing devolution deals.
Breidenbach-Roe said that Locality would launch a commission, to be chaired by the former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake, on the future of localism in the new devolution landscape.
Sarah Allan, engagement lead at the public participation organisation Involve, warned that engagement with communities and with the charity sector had "been pretty poor", and the government’s timetables for the completion of devolution arrangements "have in practice made it pretty much impossible" for decent public engagement.
Allan said successful deals needed more time for development and consultation, local people wanted devolution and local representatives should have the skills to consult properly with local communities.
"I find it very hard to envisage quality public engagement around devolution without the charity and voluntary sector being involved," she said.
"If public institutions don't work with the community and voluntary sector on public engagement, they're not only missing a great opportunity but they're also making it impossible for themselves to have quality public engagement."
Jane Harley, chief executive of the infrastructure body Voluntary Organisations’ Network North East, said many local charities were struggling to influence regional devolution arrangements and funders were increasingly avoiding supporting policy work.
"We are going back to larger and larger ‘footprints’ and geographical areas, but a lot of the local voluntary organisations are not operating across that large footprint," she said. "Regional voices are needed again because of the way devolution has been structured."