It was a spell working in Brighton, East Sussex, more than a decade ago that piqued Tony Armstrong's interest in working in the community sector. At the time, Armstrong was a civil servant working for the government's Neighbourhood Renewal Unit and was seconded to the East Brighton New Deal for Communities programme.
"My time at East Brighton opened my eyes about how little the civil service knew about the third sector and neighbourhood issues, and it gave me a taste of working outside government," he says. "In the communities sector, you don't have to go through all the layers of management and you have a lot of autonomy."
Armstrong fulfilled his ambition of moving into the voluntary sector in 2008 when he became chief executive of Living Streets, the national charity that campaigns on behalf of pedestrians. But after six and half years, during which the charity's income more than doubled from about £1.5m to £3.4m, he decided to move on, and in July he took over as chief executive at Locality, the membership body for community organisations, replacing Steve Wyler, who stepped down earlier this year.
Armstrong says he wasn't intending to move jobs, but applied because he found the "national reach and the membership organisation side attractive".
He inherits a charity that seems in good health. Under Wyler's leadership, Locality became something of a darling of the coalition government, winning contracts to run its Community Organisers, Community Rights and Neighbourhood Planning programmes, among others. But with funding for all of its major programmes due to end next year and a possible change of government ahead, Locality faces an uncertain time. "Steve did great work and Locality has positioned itself well," says Armstrong. "But we are going to be in a different climate than in the past two or three years. I want us to start thinking about where we want to be heading in the next three to five years."
One immediate priority will be to try to convince the current government to continue funding its programmes until 2016, the point at which the next government will outline its spending plans. Armstrong says that Locality is already in discussions with officials. "It would be a mistake to cut off funding for the current programmes," he says. "From what I have seen and heard, they are making a positive difference. It feels to me as if we have started to do great work, but we need to keep going."
Locality's work on the Community Rights programme includes providing support and advice to community groups interested in purchasing and running community assets, such as community centres and pubs. Armstrong says that an increasing number of groups view community assets as a way of generating a stable income, but some barriers remain to transferring assets to communities.
"I met a local group that had been struggling with its local authority to take on a park building that had been dilapidated for 20 years; the council put the group through all manner of hoops," he says.
Armstrong will push Locality's local-by-default agenda, which estimates £16bn a year could be saved if public services were delivered by local, rather than national, organisations. He says more local authorities are showing interest in the concept, but there is a different dynamic in Whitehall. "It can be easier for a commissioner to hand services over to a large organisation," he says. "You can understand the attraction, but our argument is that it's more expensive and less successful."
Armstrong says he plans to spend the first few months in his new role getting to know the needs of members. He will then spend the lead-up to the general election articulating these needs to government. "We could make more of the problems members are facing," he says. "We have been good at influencing and lobbying, but perhaps it is about doing things more publicly."