Destructive competition arrives in West Sussex

Tendering processes in West Sussex for council funding are sidelining local charities in favour of larger organisations, writes our columnist

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

I have followed recent events in parts of West Sussex with growing despondency. For many years both Worthing Voluntary Action and Adur Voluntary Action have been funded by Adur & Worthing Councils, which share a joint management structure. Both organisations enjoy strong support from local charities and groups and, until recently, secure relationships with local government. Now their futures are in doubt because Brighton and Hove Community Works bid successfully against them for a council infrastructure services contract worth £77,000.

In recent times I have had to accept that some national charities will bid for local funding and put at risk the futures of high-performing local charities. Barnardo's, for example, has competed with Home-Start charities for local family support funding in Somerset and Reading. But what we are seeing in West Sussex is the exploitation of a competitive tendering opportunity by one city-based infrastructure charity to grab funding previously awarded to two long-established, district-based charities.

The decision to award the contract was announced in February by John Mitchell, director for communities at Adur & Worthing Councils. He said: 'Tenders were assessed by a panel of five officers. The scores have been put into the public domain and the decision to award the contract to Community Works has been based on these scores." Sadly, the scoring scheme took no account of existing support and development work with local groups, volunteer involvement or community engagement.

So why would a city-based infrastructure charity bid for funding previously awarded to two neighbouring infrastructure charities? I asked Sally Polanski, chief executive of Brighton and Hove Community Works, if there was evidence of poor performance or poor leadership. Worse than "no comment", she told me that the council funders had told her not to say anything. The gagging has begun even before the contract has been signed. In the absence of any other explanation, it looks to me like aggressive, predatory ambition of the worst sort. It ignores the need for infrastructure services - especially sector representation and engagement work - to be owned by and accountable to the people who run local voluntary groups.

The decision has now been called in for scrutiny by Geoff Patmore, a Ukip councillor in Adur. It seems strange to me that such a sensitive decision has been taken by officers alone, apparently without consulting local charities or councillors. I hope councillors will reverse what their officers have done. In the end, though, we need strong leadership from Navca, the national infrastructure charity, and insistence that its members reject destructive competition in favour of a cooperative approach.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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