Kevin Curley: Nottinghamshire cuts devastate the sector and make ministers look foolish

Our new columnist says guidance for councils on sector funding cuts is worth little if the government does not enforce it

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

Maybe I've spent too long in the voluntary sector, but I really did get excited by the Best Value Statutory Guidance when it was published by the Communities and Local Government department in September last year.

Local councils were told not to pass on larger reductions to the voluntary sector as a whole than they take on themselves. They were also told to give voluntary groups and service users the chance to put forward their own ideas on how to reshape a service before cuts were decided.

This seemed to give statutory clout to the Prime Minister's welcome assertion of a year ago that councils should protect sector funding. It even seemed at last to put some backbone into the Compact by telling councils that they should honour the commitments in local Compacts.

But I'm now wondering if the guidance is worth anything at all. Asked by Navca to intervene in Nottinghamshire, where the county council has cut voluntary sector funding by 34 per cent this year, Andrew Stunell - Eric Pickles' junior at CLG - refused, saying lamely that he was disappointed by the council's action. Nick Hurd, the civil society minister, seemed to dismiss the guidance when he said that government could do little to influence local councils.

Now, after some heavyweight advocacy from Sir Stuart Etherington of the NCVO, Pickles has written to Councillor Kay Cutts, Nottinghamshire's leader. I haven't seen the letter, but Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin told parliament the content was "uncompromising and tough".

Not tough enough, though, to produce any change. Councillor Martin Suthers, deputy leader of Nottinghamshire, has simply repeated his view that the guidance is unreasonable and will not be complied with.

So there we have it. The government comes up with statutory guidance that appears to outlaw disproportionate cuts. A big local authority ignores the guidance and some ministers shrug their shoulders and say it's just a local matter. Pickles, by contrast, demands that the council thinks again - only to be ignored.

So the only option for voluntary sector leaders in an area where the council has cut unfairly is to mount a legal challenge in the High Court. Voluntary Action Leicester led the way in 2005 with a successful judicial review of city council grants cuts and Southall Black Sisters built on this in 2008 with a successful challenge against Ealing Council, west London.

Since then, we have seen a much greater readiness in the local sector to use public law to defend itself. But given the existence of Best Value Statutory Guidance, I don't think the sector should have to take legal action. The government should act itself to make sure that local authorities stop treating government guidance with contempt, devastating the local voluntary sector and making ministers look powerless and foolish.

Kevin Curley, a voluntary sector adviser and former chief executive of Navca

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