Local authority support (especially financial) for local voluntary and community sector infrastructure bodies has been seriously eroded. And, in too many places, it has ended.
This is tragic and short-sighted, is not in the interests of local authorities and has been deeply damaging to the VCS and, in turn, local communities.
A strong, vibrant local VCS benefits from the support of effective local infrastructure organisations. Usually this comes in the form of advice, capacity-building, brokering alliances and partnerships between local groups, providing a collective voice to local government and the wider public sector, and possibly supplying shared services. Such bodies nurture local civil society and act as conduits between the wider VCS and local authorities.
In my opinion, local VCS infrastructure bodies should be fully accountable to their members rather than to local government or any other part of the public sector. Of course, if they are contracted to deliver specific services for the public sector, there must be a contractual accountability, but not for their representative and voice role. Local infrastructure bodies can speak up and challenge public bodies in ways that might be difficult for individual groups, and provide a collective sector voice. Although local authorities might not always find themselves comfortable with the content, they need to hear these messages.
Good local government leaders recognise the importance of effective local VCS infrastructure bodies, just as they acknowledge the importance of a strong local VCS and recognise the connection between the two.
These leaders understand that an effective VCS in their area can enhance the lives of local people and their communities, provide a voice to complement the democratic representation of councillors (especially for marginalised communities) and act on behalf of communities. They do not see the VCS simply (or primarily) as a contractor. Rather, they are willing to provide financial support to and engage with infrastructure bodies. We have to understand the motivation of these leaders so we can persuade the others.
Of course, not every local infrastructure body is effective, representative, accountable to the local VCS or well governed. In such circumstances, I recognise that it will be difficult if not impossible for a local authority to support such bodies.
Even so, this does not provide cover for a local authority to cease its support for and engagement with the VCS and local infrastructure bodies. Indeed, a forward-looking local authority might better consider how it can work with the VCS locally and nationally to support the rebuilding of failing infrastructure bodies.
VCS and infrastructure bodies must be willing to convince local government to support local infrastructure. However, in so doing, they should be careful about their choice of language and their actions. This is about persuasion, not attack. It is not about entitlement either. And it requires evidence and commitment.
Local VCS infrastructure bodies and the wider VCS worle would be well advised to demonstrate their respect for and understanding of local government’s democratic legitimacy. They should acknowledge local government’s financial crisis and what this means for policy and budgets. And they can do all of this without compromising themselves or forfeiting their ability and right to challenge and campaign, even against a local authority.
National VCS bodies have a role too in making the case for local VCS infrastructure, to both central government and the Local Government Association, but this must be about local campaigns of persuasion, local authority by local authority and place by place.
We need to embark on a crusade to persuade all local authority leaders why they should support local VCS infrastructure and why this will be to the benefit of every council and their local communities.
John Tizard (@johntizard) is an independent strategic adviser and commentator, and a former voluntary sector executive. He is now a trustee and chair