This is my last Curley in the Community column. After six years and 70 articles, I’ve decided to spend more of my time taking part in local voluntary action and less writing about it. This last article draws on some of the people whose leadership at local level has impressed me most as I travelled the country speaking at charity conferences and facilitating strategic events.
All my articles have been written in austere times, characterised by local authority funding cuts. It’s clear that many local councils have abandoned grant funding and forced local charities to compete for contracts if they want to deliver services. Mel Bonney-Kane, chief executive of Coast & Vale Community Action, which is based in Scarborough, told me about poor procurement practice in North Yorkshire, where the county council wants a small number of large service providers. "The vultures are circling and some have already swooped", she told me. "At best, these external providers offer some local subcontracting, but with unfavourable terms and a lack of understanding of local cultures." Bonney-Kane offers a new way forward by helping local organisations to become more enterprising, to adopt more commercial approaches and to learn how to use social investment.
Adrian Barritt, the chief officer at Adur Voluntary Action in West Sussex, offered me a more radical perspective. His organisation has rejected what Barritt calls "the destruction of the local voluntary sector by enforced competition, tendering and the vanishing of grants that supported core values". Instead his focus is on tackling social isolation, emotional ill-health and poverty. Adur VA is building alliances with cooperatives, faith organisations and trades unions, and campaigning for policies that challenge poverty and help those experiencing it work together to find innovative solutions. Here is a local infrastructure organisation that has redefined its purpose and found a way of sustaining its work, despite the neo-liberal, competitive environment we all have to work within.
I found Alex Whinnom, chief executive of Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation, in upbeat mode about the opportunities presented by devolution to the sector in his city region. "We are in a fantastic position," he said. "Our greatest challenge is mobilising and acting collaboratively at speed." Whinnom acknowledged that there were big conflicts of interest between different parts of the sector, but insisted that across Greater Manchester many "really good people" were working for the common good, speaking up for the whole sector, drawing on common values and mutual trust. I know that the area still benefits from strong local and thematic infrastructure, in contrast with many parts of England. Where this has been cut away it is much more difficult for the local sector to influence the local enterprise partnerships and benefit from devolution.
The loss of grant funding, its replacement by competitive procurement practices, increasing poverty and devolution are some of the key issues facing local voluntary action as we enter 2018. I have seen that good leaders, using very different methods, are up for the challenge. They fill me with optimism.
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser