At the end of January, I attended the House of Commons for the launch of the report Change for Good, written by the Independent Commission on the Future of Local Infrastructure, which was set up by the local infrastructure support body Navca. In recent months I have worked with a number of councils for voluntary service that are having a hard time as a result of deep cuts to local government funding, so I was keen to see if this report offered any new solutions.
It urges local government and other commissioning bodies to provide core funding for local infrastructure groups. This call has been made since I first got involved with a CVS in York in 1972. Until coalition cuts hit local government funding hard, most local authorities supported their CVSs. They provided a mix of core grants or contracts for support services, including funding advice and capacity building, and for "voice" work, enabling the local sector to be represented effectively in joint planning.
Funding has been reduced in most places and the financial year beginning in April is looking bleak for some. In my home town of Derby, Community Action Derby, the local CVS, is faced with the loss of all its council funding after 26 unbroken years of grants. An officer told me that councillors felt they should prioritise front-line services over infrastructure.
Too few people take the line adopted by Bernard Collier, a Labour councillor in Brent, north-west London, and interim chief executive of Barnet Citizens Advice Bureau, who told me: "To concentrate solely on the role of the voluntary sector in service delivery is to misunderstand the value of voluntary action in society. Infrastructure charities help to preserve a healthy ecosystem for the hundreds of organisations that make life better for communities. The multiplier effect of funding infrastructure makes a compelling case compared with any service delivery contract." CVS leaders who read this will want to clone Collier and give him a seat on their council.
Sue Dovey, chief executive of Action Hampshire, is exasperated by the gap between policy and resourcing. She says there is now an expectation that communities will do more for themselves and more of what the state used to do – and there is therefore no need for infrastructure organisations to help meet this expectation. She says: "It's like paying for fleets of cars to replace lost public transport without repairing the roads."
Caroline Schwaller, chair of Navca, says clinical commissioning groups should also fund the core cost of CVSs, despite severe pressures on the NHS. She says: "Local infrastructure bodies help GPs to point their patients towards community services, reducing dependency on primary and acute health care. CVSs have local intelligence that can guide the effective use of preventive resources."
Sensibly, the report urges CVSs to embrace new funding possibilities including loan finance, social impact bonds, charging for services and crowdfunding. It's clear that CVSs must demonstrate local leadership by unlocking new resources for the sector, but without funding from the local state - principally the council and the NHS – they cannot thrive. This is as true in 2015 as it was in 1972.
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser