Swathes of the Scottish voluntary sector are reluctantly preparing for threatened widespread cuts to council budgets after a fundamental rearrangement of political power. Many are uncertain about their immediate futures. But according to the Scottish Government, the sector is central to its new agenda and will gain in the long term.
This was a hot topic at an SCVO conference on local government earlier this month. Of the delegates attending, 45 per cent still had not had their funding for the next financial year confirmed by their local authorities (Third Sector Online, 6 March).
Problems are particularly acute in Edinburgh, where the SCVO says 31 organisations are at risk after councillors drew up plans to cut nearly £900,000 from their grants budget (Third Sector Online, 11 February). Aberdeen and Highland councils are also threatening large cuts.
Children's charities have also voiced fears that the removal of ring-fencing could mean funds passed from the Scottish Government to local authorities are diverted to other spending priorities (Third Sector Online, 8 January).
Meanwhile, national charities are concerned that they will have to build new relationships with 32 local authorities instead of one central authority.
The removal of ring-fencing is one aspect of a new concordat between the Scottish Government and Scotland's 32 local authorities. Signed last November, the new arrangement means that spending priorities will no longer be dictated centrally. Instead, a series of 'single outcome agreements' will be made between the Scottish Government and each local council.
The focus on outcomes, as opposed to outputs, is intended to permit more long-term thinking when addressing social problems, says the Scottish Government. Harry McGuigan, spokesman for community wellbeing and health at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, also told the SCVO conference that the sector was "central to success of the concordat".
But will the reality match the rhetoric? One delegate was loudly applauded when she declared that government and charities were living in parallel universes in terms of their perception of the sector's ability to influence local government. Even Martin Sime, chief executive of the SCVO, who approves of the concordat's boost for local democracy, admits that Community Planning Partnerships - the equivalent of Local Strategic Partnerships south of the border - have a bad reputation in the sector.
Alan Boyle, chief executive of employment charity West Fife Enterprise, says: "We are trying to be optimistic, but community planning feels like a closed shop and you are on the outside." Boyle agrees that the sector needs to organise itself better to make sure its many voices are heard, and thinks councils for voluntary service should hold consultations and forums between different sub-sector groups to "bring together clusters of organisations around common themes".
Boyle says: "When our partners say 'we are convinced, we are ready to engage with you', who are they going to talk to?" He thinks that drawing up a Compact between each local authority and the voluntary sector would help to break down mutual suspicion. That view, though, was not shared by most conference delegates: nearly 70 per cent named 'improved funding practice' and 'increased sector contribution to single outcome agreements and performance indicators' as the most important factors in improving sector involvement in public services. Only 4 per cent listed Compacts. The fact that Edinburgh, with all its problems, is the one Scottish local authority area that currently has a Compact could explain that cynicism.
However community planning arrangements pan out, Sime agrees with John Swinney, the Scottish Government's Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, who told the conference the current problems of Scottish organisations were more likely to be caused by a delayed and tight budget settlement from Westminster and the reduced availability of European grants than by any flaws in the concordat.
"It is too early to say there will be mass casualties," says Sime. "A lot of decisions haven't yet been made." He agrees with Alison Elliot, convenor - the equivalent of chair - of the SCVO, who told the conference: "In the medium term, the changes could and should make a significantly better working environment for sector organisations."
He is even hopeful that councils might pass down some of their new responsibilities to communities themselves. Until then, organisations had better get used to arguing their financial cases with their local authorities. As Sime says: "There is no going back."