Lisa Nandy, the shadow minister for civil society, recently announced that a Labour government would promote the use of grants by public bodies. This prompted me to take a look at some of the areas I know well to find out whether local statutory grants have survived the rush to contracting.
In Sefton, the clinical commissioning group has this year created a grants fund of £1.4m. It is managed by Sefton CVS and offers grants of £50,000 for major schemes and smaller grants tackling loneliness by extending existing services such as lunch clubs. All funded charities must conform to Sefton's Workplace Wellbeing Charter and sign up to the Star Standard created by Halton & St Helens Voluntary Action.
Newcastle City Council has a £2m grants programme called the Newcastle Fund. There are also ward grants of £10,000 for small community groups and similar "public health" grants. Sally Young, chief executive of Newcastle Council for Voluntary Service, says: "This is an important political commitment to investing in the voluntary sector even during a time of cuts, supported by all our councillors."
The situation in Reading, Berkshire, is just as impressive. The council has ring-fenced a grants fund of £2.1m. As a result it has retained "robust adult social care agencies willing to work with the council to meet the demands of the Care Act 2014", according to Rachel Spencer, chief executive of Reading Voluntary Action.
Reading's CCGs are maintaining a partnership development fund of £600,000. With all this good practice on his doorstep, I hope Rob Wilson, a local MP and the Minister for Civil Society, has grasped how important local grants are for a healthy voluntary sector.
Hackney, east London, is a good borough to work in if you need a council grant, according to Jake Ferguson, chief executive of the local CVS: "The main voluntary sector grants fund has been maintained at £2.5m for the past three years without any cuts. Our CCG has introduced innovation grants and the new public health team has introduced health grants."
Another encouraging example of good practice comes from Sandwell in the West Midlands. The council has sustained its grants budget of £3m, despite all the cuts it has faced, and has increased the fund each year to cover inflation. Mark Davis, chief executive of Sandwell Council of Voluntary Organisations, says: "This has enabled many important local organisations to have the stability they need to grow, develop their services and bring in funding from outside the borough."
So why are Sefton, Newcastle, Reading, Hackney and Sandwell managing to resist the pressure to convert all voluntary sector funding to contracts? I'm convinced that it's because in each of these boroughs there is a strong CVS, led by someone who is articulate and assertive about the value of grant funding and able to make the case to senior politicians in the council and top officials in the CCG.
Central government training for commissioners and guidance from the National Audit Office play a part in this, but it is strong local leadership that makes the real difference.
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser