The closure of the infrastructure quango Capacitybuilders earlier this year affected thousands of support organisations, so the announcement of the £30m Transforming Local Infrastructure programme, which will offer grants of between £250,000 and £400,000, has been welcomed by many.
But the cheers have also been accompanied by concerns about the OCS's radical new methods of supporting the supporters. The programme is intended to encourage local leadership by giving grants to partnership bids from English upper-tier local authority areas. Only one bid per area is permitted, so groups must put aside any differences - something that has not always proved easy in the infrastructure sector.
The programme aims to rationalise the infrastructure sector rather than fund its core work. The guidance notes say it will support "transformational" activities, such as collaboration and consolidation. They say there are "real concerns about inconsistent quality, unnecessary duplication and fragmentation of resources" in infrastructure.
Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, makes it clear in the foreword to the guidance that "business as usual" is not an option: "We want this fund to be a catalyst for change and more sustainable business models."
There are signs that some organisations are responding: councils for voluntary service and volunteering organisations in Suffolk, for example, are in early talks about merger; and on Friday, BVSC, which supports voluntary action in Birmingham, is holding a meeting to discuss how it should respond.
Brian Carr, chief executive of BVSC, says infrastructure organisations must think about "what they are prepared to give up as well as what they can get".
Richard Caulfield, chief executive of the regional network Voluntary Sector North West, says the sheer number of infrastructure organisations has created incoherence. But he believes restricting partnerships to council boundaries is a mistake partly because it prevents regional networks from applying.
The boundaries are causing other concerns. Kevin Curley, chief executive of the local infrastructure support group Navca, says groups excluded from partnerships could sabotage bids by submitting separate applications, which would automatically disqualify others in the area.
Simon Hebditch, former chief executive of Capacitybuilders and now chair of The Experience Network of consultants, has doubts about the obligatory collaboration. "It's rather like volunteering," he says. "You can't make that compulsory, by definition, and you can't force collaboration and partnership."
Tight deadlines also raise questions. Capacitybuilders distributed up to £30m a year over five years; this programme has committed £30m over 18 months.
"What's happened to the Compact?" asks Hebditch. "What's happened to the desire everyone had for a minimum of three-year funding? This is moving away from previous good practice."
A spokeswoman for Compact Voice, which represents the voluntary sector on the Compact, says: "We are concerned that the short timetables introduced by this application process might prevent or restrict organisations from applying."
Vandna Gohil, director of Voice4Change England, a policy organisation for black and minority ethnic charities, says: "As small, specialist organisations, BME support organisations are unlikely to become lead partners and risk being relegated to an equalities tick-box role. The short timescales allow little time to develop partnerships based on mutual respect."
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