Hot issue: Do local councils regard the sector as a threat?

In a recent debate in Parliament, Tom Levitt MP said some local authorities were unwilling to embrace voluntary organisations as partners because they believe only elected representatives can know what communities need.

YES - Shirley Cuthew, company secretary, Colchester Carers Centre

The voluntary sector is, in my opinion, seen as a threat to some local authorities, especially where elected members are responsible for the provision of social welfare services. Elected members do not, in most cases, understand how the voluntary sector works and feel that the sector could undermine statutory sector responsibilities, and that a partnership cannot evolve or be successful.

As the voluntary sector is the main provider of social welfare services, with only a third of its funding coming from statutory sources, the threat appears to be loss of control over voluntary agencies. Voluntary agencies will no longer tolerate heavy-handed bureaucratic contracts and service-level agreements connected with paltry sums of money given to provide services.

I believe that the professionalism and autonomy of the voluntary sector is the envy of many statutory sector workers. The voluntary sector has always been willing to work in partnership because it was the only provider of services long before there was any requirement for the state to intervene or any requirement to sign up to a local Compact.

YES - Martin Brighton, community activist, Sheffield

Independent community groups, including charities, have an inherent understanding of the needs of communities. By their nature, charities can pose a threat to councils that have the responsibility to impose central government policy.

Rather than embrace the voluntary sector, councils carefully create and maintain the illusion of meaningful community involvement, knowing that their actions will eventually destroy the community. Councils can never reconcile the dichotomy between the community's needs and what government imposes.

Councillors can never represent the community on a single issue. Councillors are elected to represent a political opinion within the council's administration and ensure compliance with executive decisions.

When the council creates its own group, and cedes control over any existing community group, the ensuing false claims of community endorsement through manipulation of public perception are short-lived.

The activities of charities are based upon the altruistic nature of their members. Contractual compulsion rips the heart and soul out of a community.

Councils have every right to regard charities as a threat and to be wary of embracing the voluntary sector.

NO - Thomas Symondson, councillor, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council

In Kent, the voluntary and community sector is an invaluable partner for delivering front-line services. In many cases it delivers statutory services on behalf of local authorities, such as carrying out home visits and providing residential nursing homes. The relationship is taken seriously by the county council, with money and officer time dedicated to improving the relationship through the Kent Compact.

The Government has recognised that services provided by the voluntary sector are often of a far higher quality than could be provided for a similar cost by local authorities. They are also more sustainable, coming from a non-political organisation rather than a local council, which can be more acceptable to service users. Voluntary organisations often have years of experience providing social care, and are therefore best placed to provide it today. Local authorities can facilitate this through contracting services out or awarding grants.

Although there is an argument to say that elected representatives know what their communities need, this must not lead to the exclusion of all other perspectives. The councils of which I have experience find a positive and equal relationship with the sector vital to front-line service delivery.

NO - Vince Muspratt, head of public affairs, NSPCC

The NSPCC has never heard of a local authority that is unwilling to embrace voluntary organisations as partners. Voluntary organisations are part of the lifeblood of local communities, and the overwhelming majority of local authorities, their members and officers know that.

Voluntary organisations are at the heart of the community engagement process, planning and delivering services and support to communities, particularly to children's services. They are essential players in delivering neighbourhood renewal and community cohesion. Elected members and voluntary organisations both have powerful and complementary roles to play to meet both children's and community needs.

Members and voluntary organisations each bring to the table knowledge and understanding of local people in order to better plan services that meet local needs.

No one single individual or organisation can possibly have a thorough understanding of the vast and diverse needs of local communities. It is only by pulling all of those groups together for meaningful discussion, planning and prioritising that local authorities and their partners can meet those community needs.

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