'It's simply madness to deplete support' - open letter to Nick Hurd from Simon Simon Hebditch, former chief executive of Capacitybuilders

'Support is fragmented, inaccessble or duplicated' - Minister for Civil Society gives a robust response

Simon Hebditch
Simon Hebditch

Dear Nick,

You may be surprised to learn that I have no problem with the principles and values that lie behind the concept of the big society. Who can fail to endorse the view that much more power and influence must emerge from local communities?

But the vast majority of practical work involved in enabling communities to exercise greater power over their lives will come from the plethora of community organisations, voluntary groups and charities around the country. Participation and involvement don't just magically spring up - they must be nurtured and supported.

So adequate support for voluntary groups is essential - including financial resources. To be frank, you can't have it both ways. You can't call on the sector to do more and then preside over a loss of resources.

Although it is not politically fashionable at the moment, the need for support to organisations at the local level is vitally important. That is why the often maligned infrastructure organisations are important to the health and viability of the voluntary sector.

It is simply madness to deplete the resources of such organisations, which are vital to the success of front-line bodies. This government has systematically dismantled the architecture of support organisations and the funding programmes for them. Again, I know that some provision has been made in the short term, but many have argued that it is simply not enough.

I am, of course, well aware of the Transforming Local Infrastructure fund the government has launched and applaud the view that as much funding as possible should get to infrastructure at the front line. But a major problem with the terms and conditions is that it is a requirement that one bid comes from each area.

This may simplify matters for the funders, but it strikes against the principles of local independence. Surely a funder should assess the quality of a bid and its provenance in terms of fulfilling an infrastructural role locally. Consortia are a valuable way forward, as witnessed by Capaciltybuilders, but this can't be forced. The creation of consortia has to be encouraged - not demanded as a qualification for receipt of grant funds.

We have also witnessed the abandonment of some victories achieved in recent years by the sector. After huge efforts, the previous government agreed that the norm for government funding programmes would be for a minimum of three years. That seems to have gone out of the window. The abolition of the Commission for the Compact has inevitably degraded the importance of the Compact nationally and locally, despite the valiant efforts of Compact Voice to give it some credence.

If the government is to achieve its own objectives, and to realise at least some of the values in the idea of the big society, it will have to rely on the voluntary and community sectors to deliver the goods.

Simon Hebditch, chair, The Experience Network


'There is simply less public money around': Hurd's reply

Dear Simon,

I am pleased that you agree with the principles behind the big society. You talk quite rightly about the important role of civil society and the need for productive support from government. I have recently set out the strategic framework for that support on the Cabinet Office website.

We also agree on the need to make sure that front-line bodies are supported more effectively. That is the whole context of our £30m Transforming Local Infrastructure fund and the complementary investment by the Big Lottery Fund. The decision to fund a single bid in each area was in direct response to the sector's view that support was fragmented, inaccessible and often duplicated. The argument that asking infrastructure organisations to work more closely together undermines their independence completely misses the point. All of us must have one priority and that is doing the best we can for people who need help - working in partnership is essential.

Throughout your letter, you fail to recognise that there is a great deal less public money around or that the National Audit Office was sceptical about the value for money delivered by the Capacitybuilders programme (a view shared by many others in the sector). It is possible to work more efficiently.

I also totally disagree with your view on the Compact. My Labour predecessor breached it and thought it was enough to say "sorry". We have revived it to make it simple and more relevant and we have asked the NAO, which has real teeth, to tell us how effectively it is being implemented.

Finally, I found it strange for you to talk about "loss of resources" without any reference at all to the economic environment. What is at stake is an economic recovery that the social sector needs to see as much as everyone else. This year we will still spend £120bn more than we will get from taxes to keep nurses in hospitals and teachers in schools. The voluntary sector cannot be immune from the process of reducing government expenditure.

With the support of strategic partners, we have worked hard to mitigate the short-term impact. The £107m Transition Fund has supported more than 1,000 of the most vulnerable organisations. Local authorities have received a clear message from ministers to prioritise internal savings before cutting funds to the local voluntary sector. Many have responded positively, maintaining or even increasing investment. However, this is not the case everywhere and cuts have created real frustration for some charities.

You appear to equate "resources" with taxpayers' money. Opportunities exist to inspire more giving, make better connections with businesses and open the market to social investment. Groundbreaking initiatives set out in the Giving White Paper and work to establish Big Society Capital with £600m to invest in social projects show that we are determined to work with the sector to take full advantage of these opportunities.

Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society


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