By choosing a name as bold as Transforming Local Infrastructure, the government could hardly be accused of lacking ambition in its programme for reorganising the complex patchwork of local voluntary sector infrastructure organisations and making them less reliant on statutory or lottery funding. But more than 14 months into the 18-month funding programme, it remains to be seen whether the scheme will fully live up to its name.
Last year, bids were invited from consortia of voluntary sector infrastructure and support groups across England for a slice of the £30m on offer from the Office for Civil Society. Only one bid could be made from each upper-tier local authority area and the money awarded had to be spent within 18 months. Out of 140 bids, 74 were successful and each received between £258,000 and £965,000.
Last month the local infrastructure body Navca published its Analysis of Transforming Local Infrastructure Bids, which showed that about a third of the successful bids included some form of merger or amalgamation of services, among them plans in Brighton and Hove, Derbyshire, Suffolk and Surrey to merge a wide range of local support organisations in their areas. Forty per cent of bids said they intended to explore greater collaboration, which may or may not result in a merger, and just under 30 per cent said that they planned to co-locate services with other support organisations. About half said that they aimed to share web portals or other IT projects such as databases.
The study concluded that the programme had "overwhelmingly" helped to initiate work that benefited local infrastructure organisations, but said it also raised a number of issues that could prove problematic. One of these was that there had been a heavy emphasis on rationalisation within, but not between, areas – raising the possibility of similar small-scale services, which ideally ought to be amalgamated, continuing to be provided in adjoining areas. It added that it would be more difficult to improve practices across the board, such as the quality of commissioning for infrastructure services, if there were different standards in different local areas.
Bill Freeman, director of services and business development at Navca, says progress made by the successful consortia depends on the complexity of the programmes they bid to carry out. For example, some partnerships have set themselves an ambitious target of merging multiple local organisations into one and then delivering projects; others have set themselves the simpler aim of running joint projects. "In some areas they have had to explore further the type of structures they want, which has taken time," he says.
Freeman says most of the 74 consortia are on track to deliver what they said they would do, but he is aware of four instances where the Office for Civil Society and the Big Fund, the non-Lottery funding arm of the Big Lottery Fund that administers the programme, have had to intervene. "In these cases the partnerships have been at risk of breaking down or the consortia have changed what they have said they are doing because of changes in personnel or because they have closed programmes," he says.
Freeman adds that a genuine transformation of local infrastructure will also require an improvement in the skills of the existing workforce. "Most of TLI has been about transforming organisations, but there needs to be a focus on developing people’s core skills," he says. "There has been a bit of development, but we need to prepare staff for the future."
Questions also remain about whether the money has been allocated wisely. The government used a competitive tendering process in which only about half the applicants could receive money. As a result, says Freeman, some areas that are ripe for reform didn’t get any TLI money. "The investment hasn’t necessarily been made in the areas that need it the most," he says. "It might have been better to run the bidding process differently."
He believes it would have been better for the bids to be checked independently to assess the need for change in the areas concerned and the readiness of the organisations involved to be transformed. He would also like to have seen clearer guidelines about who should lead partnerships and which organisations should have been involved: "Many have got it right, but we have seen some examples where providers that are the mainstay of support in their area have been cut out of the scheme, losing out to smaller niche organisations that are not compelled to ensure there is a comprehensive support service that is accessible to all."
In the north east, four out of the five bids from the Tees Valley area were successful, but in the area from Darlington to the Scottish border only one of seven bids was awarded money. Jo Curry, chief executive of Voluntary Organisations’ Network North East, says that TLI has created a tale of two halves: "In the Tees Valley, the investment has been used to great effect," she says. "Mergers have been explored, cloud technology has been developed and innovative use of asset transfer has happened. TLI has made this possible."
But she says the lack of investment in the rest of the region has left a huge gap. "In the rural parts such as Northumberland and Durham, which have been through local government reorganisation, the TLI investment would have made a massive impact," she says. "For example, in Durham, where seven local infrastructure organisations are operating in one unitary authority, partners were less able to get their act together and come up with a cohesive plan quickly."
Richard Caulfield, chief executive of Voluntary Sector North West and a long-standing critic of the TLI programme, believes the whole process has been flawed from the start. "The transformation I think the government is after – and the sector needs – doesn’t respect local authority boundaries," he says. "Yes, there has been a chance to work across boundaries within TLI, but the way that many people have put their bids together means that they’ve largely stuck to their local authority areas."
He believes the programme should have led to the creation of fewer but stronger local infrastructure bodies that operate across at least two local authority areas or even on a regional level. "People need to think on a Greater Manchester scale," he says. "In most boroughs, there just isn’t the depth of sector organisations to sustain a local infrastructure body."
He says that TLI has produced a lot of worthy but relatively small-scale projects. "I don’t think it was meant to be series of projects," he says. "This was money to be spent on changing how infrastructure looks." In the north west, for example, he says three new organisations have been created and only one has merged, which is not the kind of rationalisation that was envisaged. He is also not aware that there have been any redundancies. "You can’t underestimate the passion within some organisations to keep themselves alive," he says.
Caulfield believes that many of the schemes and partnerships created will struggle to survive. "I think what we’ll see is a negative transformation over the next two years as the TLI funding and local authority money comes to an end," he says.
Third Sector asked the Cabinet Office to address the criticism that the bidding process was flawed and that too much TLI money had gone towards running a series of projects. It was also asked if the programme had led to a significant number of major mergers or a general strengthening of local infrastructure bodies. A spokesman says Big Fund rigorously scrutinised the applications against the published criteria to ensure that the highest quality projects received money.
"Our funding is helping 74 local infrastructure and volunteering organisations’ partnerships to become more innovative, more efficient and less reliant on statutory or lottery funding," he says. "The successful applicants put forward ambitious plans. We are confident that they have made the most of this opportunity and will be in a better position to deliver improved services to front-line organisations in challenging times." The money has led to mergers, he adds – in Suffolk, for example, a new organisation that combines 10 previous infrastructure bodies has been launched.
Case study: West London Collaborating for Change
The West London Collaborating for Change consortium secured the largest amount of funding from the Transforming Local Infrastructure programme. It received £965,000 to create new projects and improve joint working in the north-west and west London boroughs of Brent, Ealing, Harrow, Hillingdon and Hounslow, which have contributed a total of £500,000 in match funding.
The money has been used for 16 projects that range from helping community groups to share staff and premises to IT projects and the West London Business Services Hub. Eight operate across two or more partner areas, eight in a single area. Andy Roper, chief executive of Ealing Community and Voluntary Service, says the process has gone well and all projects are under way: "Some of the projects will more than meet their targets, some will just about hit their targets and some won’t quite reach their targets."
He says the partnership has focused on running projects because CVSs in west London have already been consolidated. Two years ago, Hounslow CVS collapsed after the local council withdrew funding, and services there are now provided by Ealing CVS. In Harrow, the CVS closed in 2011 and support services there come from CVSs in Ealing, Hillingdon and Hammersmith. Roper says there is still scope for sharing finance officers or admin and IT officers, but merging more services would be unwise.
The TLI money has allowed the partners to do things they couldn’t by themselves, such as set up the West London Stats Bank, which holds key local statistics. Roper says it has been relatively easy to
set up and has already helped organisations to back up funding bids.
But he says the West London Business Services Hub will take longer than the 18-month funding period: "Out of our 16 projects, there are three or four where we could have achieved more impact if the funding period had been a bit longer," he says.
Case study: Great Infrastructure for Tameside
Community Voluntary Action Tameside applied for a TLI grant because it felt that sector infrastructure in the metropolitan borough – part of Greater Manchester – was too fragmented.
It received £337,000 for the Great Infrastructure for Tameside project, which aimed to merge Tameside Third Sector Coalition with the Volunteer Centre Tameside to develop a group that fosters new relationships between local charities and the community, and to provide infrastructure support.
Tony Okotie (right), chief executive of CVAT, says negotiations with the volunteer centre were already under way over a possible merger, but the grant accelerated the process by covering the costs of consultancy, legal fees and new branding. The merger was completed in October and no jobs have been lost.
Okotie says the most successful part of the programme has been Tameside 4 Good, set up to foster new relationships between charities and the local community and to get local businesses more involved. The project has a grant-making fund worth £500,000 derived from the assets of dormant charities under the local authority’s control. The fund will make annual grants to local charities, starting from this month.
The use of dormant charitable funds, combined with better marketing of local charitable needs, makes the scheme unique, Okotie says. The scheme has already exported the idea under licence: Wigan 4 Good is up and running and up to eight more areas are considering using the model.
Okotie says the TLI scheme has gone relatively smoothly for CVAT, but adds that the government’s monitoring of the grant has been more onerous than expected. "This was meant to be a light-touch programme in terms of monitoring, but it has not been as light a touch as I expected," he says.
Case study: Community Action Suffolk
In February last year, 10 local infrastructure organisations in Suffolk received a £330,000 TLI grant to form a single, county-wide body called Community Action Suffolk. The proposed merger includes the CVSs in Ipswich and Lowestoft, a volunteering centre, the youth infrastructure organisation Young Suffolk and the rural body Suffolk Acre.
But getting the boards and members of 10 organisations to agree to merge has taken longer than anticipated. CAS hoped to have all 10 signed up by last summer before appointing a chief executive and becoming fully operational by this month. Instead, it has just completed sign-off for the transfer of assets to the new body and it hired its new chief executive, Nicola Thompson, only last month. Three chief executives of organisations involved in the merger have already left, and CAS expects more redundancies by June.
The delays have made it difficult to assess the impact of its work so far, according to Will Gibson (right), former chief executive of Suffolk Acre, but he believes that the new, bigger organisation has a higher profile in the local voluntary sector.
Gibson stepped down as head of Suffolk Acre as part of the merger process, but he is staying on until skills gaps have been filled – CAS lacks a senior leadership team to support the new chief executive and is relying on support from trustees from the 10 organisations.
Gibson says the cost of the merger – a "substantial" part of the grant – has also been higher than expected, leaving less money to market the new organisation. But he adds that the tight, 18-month deadline was not unrealistic. "I think the more time you give people, the more time they take," he says. "The fund was intended to create more robust infrastructure for the voluntary sector, so how long can you take before you start delivering real impact on the ground?"