The decision to phase out funding for the national hubs of expertise was taken at a meeting in Birmingham on 22 November. In reality, their fate was probably sealed 20 months previously when the Government announced it was relinquishing control of the ChangeUp infrastructure programme to the 'arm's length' agency Capacitybuilders.
In addition to their well-documented infighting, the hubs also bore the watermark of the Home Office regime of Fiona Mactaggart and David Blunkett. Capacitybuilders and its chief executive, Simon Hebditch, took control of ChangeUp in March, and the main remnant of the aborted and fragmented Whitehall version of it had to go.
"We wanted to be clear that Capacitybuilders had accountability for the delivery of the whole Change-Up programme," Hebditch told Third Sector last week. "We need to be in control and be seen to be in control."
But regime change doesn't stop with the demise of the hubs. Tomorrow, Capacitybuilders will launch a consultation on a road map for the whole programme until 2014. This involves a review of the role of the 130 local consortia that determine which services are offered to local front-line organisations across the country. The post-hubs national support programme is also up for review - in January, the sector will be consulted on what the new national service priorities should be. New contractors will then be commissioned from within or outside the sector.
Capacitybuilders has been careful not to go too far in establishing a firmer grip on the strategic direction of ChangeUp. Before the handover was announced last year, the Government was involved in behind-the-scenes wranglings over the role of Capacitybuilders. Sector umbrella bodies feared that it would become too powerful; they insisted that decision-making processes should remain within the sector.
Those same concerns resurfaced earlier this year when Capacitybuilders said it was considering taking commissioning away from the hubs, an announcement that provoked accusations it was 'nationalising' them. But Capacitybuilders is adamant that centralising commissioning does not mean it is becoming a central development agency for the sector, analogous to the Improvement and Development Agency for local government, or that it is imposing its ideas on the sector.
"It is a misconception that we are going to control 150 contracts from our office in Birmingham," says Hebditch. "What we want is a clear, accountable relationship with seven or eight new main contractors that will deliver the overall thematic programmes for us." Most of the work will be sub-contracted through those bodies.
The themes will not change radically from those covered by the hubs, according to Hebditch. "There was always agreement that there needs to be continuing work on those six themes," he says. "But the difference will be in the method of delivery. One of the big criticisms of the national programme's structure was that there was no alignment between what people said they needed out in the country, what the local consortia were doing and what was happening nationally."
However, one or two new themes will be added. Hebditch says support for the sector's campaigning and advocacy role is a likely candidate. Third sector minister Ed Miliband has confirmed that Capacitybuilders chair Chris Pond is interested in this area. And Ben Kernighan, the NCVO's deputy chief executive and architect of its hub empire, has said one of the new national priorities for ChangeUp should be "helping voluntary organisations to be more effective in their policy, research and campaigning".
But whatever the themes, there is a consensus that Capacitybuilders' toughest task is ensuring that national support services really make a difference at the front line. Mike Martin, chair of the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action, says: "Looking back, what was missing to a significant extent was an understanding that if you are a local front-line voluntary organisation and you need help and support, you will go and get it locally if it's available locally. You won't go to a national telephone advice line or website."
Martin, who is also director of Reading Voluntary Action, believes that concentration on the role of the national hubs has diverted attention from services that can be delivered regionally, such as IT support. "Some of the regional infrastructure organisations, such as Raise in the south-east, feel they have been overlooked in all of this," he says. "There has been a lot of emphasis on the six national hubs and results at the front line. But there is actually a layer in the middle that is quite important."