NEWS IN FOCUS: Lack of funding hampers local voluntary bureaux

Patrick McCurry

Local umbrella bodies will be forced to make cutbacks unless more government money is made available.

The funding advice worker at Nuneaton and Bedworth Council for Voluntary Service brought in £1 million from external sources for local voluntary and community groups last year.

But the future of the post is in jeopardy because of a lack of cash.

"The post was initially paid for by the Community Fund but that's ended so we've got some money from the local council but need to find more to keep the post going," says Liz Stuart, chief executive of the council for voluntary service.

She adds: "We don't have a problem getting funding for projects but it's incredibly difficult to get money for our core costs."

This kind of problem demonstrates the financial constraints many council for voluntary services, volunteer bureaux and other umbrella bodies that support voluntary and community groups at grassroots level are facing.

And it comes against a backdrop of the Government calling for more voluntary-sector involvement in delivering public services and more volunteers.

The problems are also threatening the development of local Compacts - the agreements between the voluntary sector and local authorities that are aimed at improving local relationships and partnership working.

But there is some hope on the horizon, with a government review of voluntary-sector infrastructure funding to be published at the end of April, although opinions differ on how much this will achieve unless local authorities and other local funders are involved.

The local "infrastructure" of voluntary and community groups in most parts of the country is worryingly under funded, according to the Compact Working Group.

So far some 118 local Compacts have launched but there are 270 to go to reach the Government's 2004 deadline.

Council for voluntary services and other local development agencies co-ordinate local Compacts. They also have a key role in building the strength of local grassroots groups. This may mean giving information, advice and training to groups, or perhaps introducing groups to officials in the local council so that they can negotiate the use of a community hall or find out about the grant-giving process.

Part of the problem is the uneven distribution of local government funds, says Chris Penberthy, chief executive of Volunteer Development England.

Some volunteer bureaux get funding from local councils and others get none, forcing them on a continual begging round, he says.

Ben Hughes, chief executive of the British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres (Bassac), says that grant cuts by local government are having a severe effect."Directors of our settlements are having to spend much more time fundraising and so are being distracted from local policy, lobbying and building communities," he says.

The lack of funding is made worse by the fact that infrastructure bodies are being expected to take part in an ever-larger number of local partnerships, says Sylvia Brown, chief executive of Acre, the umbrella group for rural community councils. "Our research found that each rural community council, on average, is involved in 35 different partnerships, including economic partnerships, learning and skills councils and local strategic partnerships."

So will the Government review of infrastructure funding help tackle these problems?

The review is being led by the Active Community Unit (ACU) at the Home Office and follows last autumn's Treasury cross-cutting review. Among the funding announced in the Treasury review was the £125 million Futurebuilders fund, to be used to build capacity for the sector to deliver public services, and £93 million for the ACU to spend on voluntary-sector infrastructure.

Both funds are to be spent over three years.

The Treasury review also launched a mapping exercise to find out the level of local voluntary sector capacity. To make things even more complicated there was another review before the Treasury report, on building the capacity of grassroots organisations.

"It sometimes seems like I spend all my time responding to these government reviews," says Brown.

A key part of the Government's thinking is to find out what different government departments are spending on voluntary-sector infrastructure and how that spending can be made more coherent.

As for the money available, some argue that £93 million for the whole of England will not achieve a great deal and that the Futurebuilders fund is primarily capital spending and not the revenue funding local development agencies really need.

But Kevin Curley, of NACVS, is more optimistic. He believes that if central government can engage with local authorities and the NHS's primary care trusts over the spending of the £93 million, it could lead to significant changes.

"The Home Office is aware of the need to draw in local government and make changes that are sustainable," he says.

Hughes agrees that there is potential if the funds can be used to lever in more money from local government. "If the Government can get local authorities to match its own funding at local level, that will help," he says.

He adds that if the review can produce a strategy highlighting good practice in funding voluntary -sector infrastructure, then other public funders could adjust their own approaches.

"It would be good to see funders such as learning and skills councils, the neighbourhood renewal fund and so on taking into account the ACU strategy in how they fund local infrastructure."

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