Opinion: Third Voice - Compact Plus must take local needs into account

Sir Michael Bichard is retiring as chair of the Compact Working Group. He outlines the challenges for his successor.

The Compact between the Government and the voluntary and community sector is in its seventh year. For the past three years I have watched over its development as chair of the Compact Working Group. In that time, the Compact has moved on from expressing good intentions to delivering real change in the relationship between sectors.

I have often talked about the Compact being a vehicle rather than an end in itself. This vehicle is taking us away from a world in which, if we are honest, the voluntary and community sector has been used and patronised by the state sector to one in which the third sector's role as a partner in policy development and delivery is recognised.

We have made progress on that journey, but we certainly have not yet arrived. Now, with the Home Office's proposals for Compact Plus set out in Strengthening Partnerships: Next Steps for Compact, there is an opportunity to re-examine the journey and work out whether the Compact continues to serve our needs.

As a vehicle, the Compact has been used by those developing national policies to influence what happens locally. Most of the voluntary sector operates at a local level, and the relationship with local councils always has the potential to be problematic. Councils and voluntary organisations feel under pressure financially, and compete with each other about who truly represents the local community.

For these reasons, we have pushed for national targets to kick-start Local Compact development. This has helped deliver a situation in which 75 per cent of local areas have published their Local Compact, and all but a handful of the remainder are expected to publish in the next year.

Compact Plus seeks to add to this national leverage on local public bodies with proposals for a common set of Compact commitments and a new kitemark scheme. But those agreeing the final policy for Compact Plus need to ensure that national pressure does not stifle local initiative. That initiative should involve the voluntary and community sector in identifying and meeting the needs of local communities. I hope that the voluntary and community sector will use this consultation to explore how we ensure Local Compacts retain their flexibility and responsiveness while ensuring that the voice of the sector is heard at the heart of local government.

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