Local government and the local voluntary and community sector serve the same communities, yet there is not always the level of cooperation between them that one might expect. This has to change. It must not be another victim of austerity.
When I speak to leaders and activists from the local voluntary and community sector, I am increasingly struck by the similarity of questions and concerns they raise about local government and their relationship with councils.
When I speak to local government leaders I might hear fine words about the VCS, but these are not always matched by their policies and practices.
Funding is a critical issue for both local government and the VCS. Northamptonshire County Council is unlikely to be the only English local authority to issue a section 114 notice and, in effect, run out of money – the government has just announced further cuts to its support for councils. The VCS should join local government in campaigning for urgent new funding for local authorities.
In my conversations with VCS activists, as well as being asked directly about funding, I am often asked many similar questions such as:
- Why does the local authority seem to regard our role in the VCS as being merely to provide services, either through public sector contracts or as substitutes for public sector provision?
- How can we better engage with local government and the wider public sector to influence policy and budget allocations, contribute to the inclusive growth agenda and speak on behalf of our beneficiaries and communities?
- Will local government understand the value of, and consequently use, grant aid to support local VCS and social action?
- Given that localism should be about more than devolution to town halls, when will the VCS’s critical contribution to "double devolution" be recognised?
- Why does a council, if it actually provides any financial support to local infrastructure bodies, insist on tendering this through a competitive process? Thankfully, some councils still support local infrastructure through grants, but are they in a minority?
- Why does a local authority think that it should determine how the local VCS should be represented and supported by tendering for infrastructure support when it is very unlikely to adopt the same arrogant approach to chambers of commerce or other sector infrastructure bodies?
These questions should also be of intense interest and concern to council leaders – political and executive. They go to the heart of securing social and economic wellbeing.
Council leaders should value and want to seek close relationships with their local VCS. And vice versa. After all, they are from and represent the same communities, and in a period of constrained resources need to galvanise their combined strengths for the benefit of their communities.
Surely the starting point must be mutual understanding between the sectors and respect for each other? This requires both the council and the VCS to invest some time and commit to developing long-term relationships.
Traditionally, the relationship between the VCS and councils has varied from place to place. It is sometimes confused and at times even contradictory, even though many councillors are trustees of local VCS groups and charities, often work with them at council and community or ward levels and refer residents to them for support, advice and services. Nevertheless, all too often there is a tendency to be wary of recognising VCS groups as a legitimate voice of communities. And it can never be a substitute for democratic local government that is accountable to the local electorate. When councils and councillors work well together with the local VCS, local democracy can be enhanced and never threatened.
The VCS must respect the right of councils to allocate their ever scarcer resources to maximise wellbeing and meet their statutory duties. This will sometimes mean difficult decisions have to be made in respect of funding for the VCS. The VCS has no entitlement to funding.
For their part, councils must understand and accept that the VCS is about more than service delivery and certainly more than "contracted" public service delivery. Indeed, the VCS has no aspiration to be an agent of the state nor a shadow of a business sector corporate, competing for outsourced contracts.
Council/VCS relationships must be about much more than commissioning, procurement and contracting and, when councils coerce VCS organisations into this direction, they are missing a huge opportunity and denying local communities something very special. The bigger prize is for councils and the VCS to work together on policy development, budget decisions and place-shaping.
To progress this approach, my view is that councils should fund the development of VCS capacity through grant aid to local VCS infrastructure bodies. And from years of observation it is clear to me, both as a former council leader and subsequently through my involvement in the VCS sector, that the most effective of these infrastructure bodies are those the VCS itself creates, owns and controls, and which are accountable to the VCS -– not the council.
In those places where relations are not as good as they should be, I suggest that a good starting point is for council leaders and the local VCS representative bodies to have a conversation about the questions I raised earlier in this piece. If there can be some discussion (and, I hope, some consensus/) on how to address these issues between council leaders and the VCS, there can be a foundation on which to create a more sustainable and equitable place.
John Tizard (@johntizard) is an independent strategic adviser and commentator, and a former voluntary sector executive. He is now a trustee and chair