Editorial: Will the sector go for 'Social Action Zones'?

Stephen Cook, editor

If last week's little pantomime on the Government front bench really does signify Tony Blair's 'coronation' of the Chancellor as the next Labour leader, it's now more than likely that the next election will pit Gordon Brown against David Cameron.

It will be interesting to see whether the British people prefer the big fist, as the Prime Minister put it, to Cameron's greener, more humane but still elusive version of Conservatism. And what will it mean for the voluntary sector?

The Conservatives are likely to put up more coherent policies than they did last year, and to present them better. In 2005, under Michael Howard, they managed to put up a literate story on the most important topics, but didn't have much to say about subsidiary issues such as the voluntary sector. This time, they're reviewing their policies carefully and have appointed as spokesman Greg Clark, who has some knowledge of the sector and a bit of drive. Ed Miliband may be more than a match for him, but remember that if Brown comes to power Miliband will, as the Chancellor's former adviser and a bright spark in a parliamentary party short of fresh talent, be high in the queue for promotion.

As for policies, we got the general approach in the article David Cameron wrote for Third Sector last week. He called for a level playing field on contracts for the voluntary sector, which is a manifesto commitment the Government is beginning to implement. But he put it in stronger terms than the Government, saying that "the system seems to be institutionally hostile to voluntary bodies and community groups". He argued that the sector suffers from over-regulation, and he proposed having 'Social Action Zones', where there would be better funding and less bureaucracy for voluntary groups.

Cameron may have repudiated Thatcherism, but he evidently hasn't forgotten one of the better legacies of her government: the deregulating Urban Development Corporations created by her first environment minister, Michael Heseltine.

Labour and local government didn't like them, but over time some did well.

Local government would probably not like Social Action Zones either, and it will be interesting to see how New Labour - if that is what the party is still to be - reacts to the idea. As for those elements of the voluntary sector that think they could make a better job of improving deprived areas than state agencies or local government, this fledgling policy might be causing their antennae to twitch.

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