Newsmaker: The grass-roots democrat

Bassac chief executive Ben Hughes wants the Government to rein in its agenda for public service delivery

Ben Hughes
Ben Hughes

There are many explanations for declining voter turnout in elections - the main parties' search for the same centre ground, media cynicism about politicians, political ignorance among young people - but Ben Hughes has a new culprit: the voluntary and community sector's involvement in public service delivery.

The chief executive of community sector umbrella body Bassac says the Government's attempt to turn charities into deliverers of public services is undermining democracy.

"People need to be able to express what they need and how they need it, and to have a voice that can be listened to by the state," he says. "For the sector to support people in doing this, it needs to have confidence in its independence from the state. This is being undermined by the focus on public service delivery. We have a democratic crisis in this country and people feel very disenchanted."

He believes the obsession with public service delivery has meant that other community services have been left to wither. Bassac members report that it is increasingly difficult to get council funding for functions such as providing community meeting spaces, advocacy work for marginalised communities or street-based community workers who can help to combat religious extremism. "All sorts of things that are key to community cohesion are being eroded," he says.

To Hughes, the informal participation made possible by community groups is the first step in the democratic process. "If you don't do it, it's not just that people's voices aren't heard at a local level," he says. "It's also democracy that suffers because elected structures won't work. We see it in local authorities where there is no community-based provision. There is incredibly poor turnout in local elections and councillors aren't seen as community representatives."

Hughes wants the Government to put the brakes on sector delivery of public services. But critics might ask why community groups can't just shun Government overtures and allow other charities that want to deliver services to do so.

He responds that there are community groups that have rejected state funding, but they have become very isolated and entirely dependent on trusts and foundations. He says: "The state has a duty to invest in a vibrant community sector because it's a good thing in itself - not just because it delivers public services."

Hughes also argues that for many community groups service delivery is the only show in town. "If all of the emphasis is on the delivery of public services, there is nothing else because nothing else is funded," he says.

He feels ministers are edging in his direction. For example, Ed Miliband, Minister for the Cabinet Office, has suggested the sector could complement - not take over - public services. The Government's third sector review emphasised 'voice and campaigning' and strengthening communities as much as transforming public services. And the Department of Communities and Local Government has committed itself to backing 'community anchors' - exactly the role Bassac members play.

But Hughes wants the sector and government to agree an action plan to further grass-roots representation and advocacy work by the community sector. He is discussing the idea with the Office of the Third Sector.

So is the public service delivery agenda giving way to a more balanced approach? "The jury's out," says Hughes. "The combination of Ed Miliband and Hazel Blears, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is the best we could have hoped for. We have an opportunity to try to make this happen."

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