I was in Thurrock, Essex, recently to speak at the launch of a report on the state of the sector prepared by Thurrock CVS. I looked from the speakers' platform at a large hall full of voluntary sector leaders, commissioners from the clinical commissioning group and senior officers and elected members from Thurrock Council. Here was a successful CVS demonstrating its ability to bring the public and voluntary sectors together to address how to make the aspirational title of the conference - Working Together - a practical reality.
Thurrock State of the Voluntary Sector 2015: A Report on Social and Economic Impact is an impressive piece of local intelligence. It estimates the local sector's income in 2014/15 as £34.8m, compared with £38.9m in the previous year and £37.8m the year before that. Almost 7,500 volunteers and 1,315 paid staff worked in Thurrock's voluntary sector in 2014/15. Surprisingly, only 3 per cent of voluntary organisations had frequent direct dealings with the private sector, whereas 43 per cent were funded by the council.
The council's new chief executive, Lyn Carpenter, spoke of the need "to jointly tackle diminishing budgets and high needs of the vulnerable in our society". She pledged to remove any barriers in the way of engaging with and commissioning from the sector. She said: "We need a real partnership, built on trust, that recognises there is less budget available but seeks creative ways to address need."
I told the conference how impressed I was with the strategic work done so far by Thurrock Council. Its commissioning, procurement and grant-funding strategy addresses the need for a range of statutory funding types, including grants and investment funding, if the local voluntary sector is to thrive. Its social value framework is well worked through in terms of outcomes and sample contract specifications such as "supporting early intervention initiatives" and "increasing volunteering by 15 per cent year on year". Both policy frameworks would be the envy of local sector leaders in other parts of the country.
Kristina Jackson, chief executive of Thurrock CVS, accepts that there will be an expanding role for volunteers as local government cuts affect local people. But she warns that "volunteers are not a free resource. There is a cost to training and supporting volunteers that needs to be factored into contracts."
Rob Groves, director of Friends of Hardie Park CIC, which is transforming a local park with volunteers, was more direct, pointing out the problems caused by the loss of so many experienced local government officers. He said: "It has a huge impact. What was important for one officer suddenly becomes just another thing that gets dumped onto those who are left. It causes breaks in consistency and frustration, and wastes time and money."
I've written before about the increasing challenge of making partnerships between local government and the local voluntary sector work well as ever-deeper cuts undermine relationships and trust. These tensions are well understood by Thurrock's leaders in both sectors. This conference gave me confidence that people with good intentions and good strategies can stop financial pressures from becoming overwhelming.
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser