In September I visited Eastbourne to deliver the keynote address at the East Sussex SpeakUp Forum's "Big Event". This was my first visit to this lovely seaside town, with its Victorian pier and the Towner Art Gallery. This must be one of the finest galleries outside London. It's run by a local charity and I was fortunate to catch the popular Eric Ravilious exhibition.
The Big Event's title was "Collaboration and Partnerships: Together for a Purpose". Helping local charities to work together and not to compete has always been at the heart of my work, so I was very comfortable with this theme. Most people wanted to focus on collaborating to win public services contracts. Rebecca Luton, project support officer at the SpeakUp Forum, explained why: "The process of transforming all health and social care in East Sussex is dominating partnership working and commissioning at the moment."
Many local voluntary sector leaders I spoke to fear this will mean the end of small contracts and grants. The lack of sector representation on the local Accountable Care Board is clearly aggravating these anxieties and was the subject of some challenging questions. Sally Polanski, adult social care manager at East Sussex County Council, sought to assure people that a "stakeholder group" had been set up "to allow input to the strategic planning process", but this did not satisfy many of the charity leaders there.
Marie Casey, chief executive of Seap (Support Empower Advocate Promote), praised local commissioners for listening to the sector and encouraging collaboration, but said: "There is a disconnect between commissioning and procurement that means contracts are not going to local collaborations. We need to bring local authority legal advisers, commissioners, procurement officers and voluntary sector providers together and thrash out a strategy if we are to protect local ownership of service delivery."
As I told the conference, there also needs to be promotion of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 if commissioning is to deliver the resources local charities need.
I must put these concerns into context. I found plenty of evidence that relationships between the voluntary sector and East Sussex County Council are good. Adam Chugg, chief executive of 3VA, the infrastructure charity for Eastbourne, Lewes and Wealden, told me his organisation has had no cuts in council funding since 2010. He said: "We have strong relationships with officers in public health and social care. They know we are helping them to deliver their stronger communities agenda and they see that we are saving public money".
Paul Rideout, policy manager (third sector) at the county council, said he had worked hard to get elected members and senior officers to understand the value of the sector and its infrastructure bodies. "Good relationships are well embedded and mature," he said.
I think the quality of partnership working between the local authority and the voluntary sector in East Sussex is impressive. It's sufficiently resilient to cope with the tensions arising from radical changes to health and social care commissioning, provided there's dialogue, trust and an inclusive approach from all.
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser