Opinion: Third Voice - Third sector expansion risks losing our local heroes

Richard Gutch, chief executive, Futurebuilders England

Encouraged by one of Stephen Cook's editorials, in August I read Nick Aldridge's new book Communities in Control: the New Third Sector Agenda for Public Service Reform. Nick, who is director of strategy and communications at Acevo, shows he is well aware of the arguments about the role of the sector in public service delivery.

His book is full of examples of situations in which the third sector has either taken a bigger role or could do so. As chief executive of Futurebuilders England, I welcome this, but the sector must address a number of issues as it takes on an expanded role.

The example of housing associations is quoted with great approval. In 1974, housing associations managed 100,000 homes. Now, they manage more than 1.8 million and continue to expand.

Yet this same example is quoted by many others in the sector as a warning.

Are housing associations still addressing special needs and the needs of those on the lowest incomes? How responsive are national housing associations to local needs? When did you last read about a housing association campaigning on housing issues? How willing is the public to donate to or volunteer for housing associations?

Aldridge argues for more transfers of services and assets from the public to the third sector. Much of the sector's success depends on the commitment and vision of its workers. Are transfers unlocking that same energy among public sector employees? Or are they simply changing service delivery from one institutional form to another in order to save money?

A third area of concern is the sense that big is seen to be beautiful.

Nick states that "localisation might provide a brake on the sector's ability to expand its role", and argues for more co-ordination in commissioning at a regional or sub-regional level. This would be helpful for some voluntary organisations, but the other challenge is to ensure that the added value local voluntary and community organisations can bring to public service delivery doesn't get squeezed out. There is a real need for the larger national organisations to develop partnerships, or to subcontract to smaller local groups to address this challenge.

- Communities in Control: the New Third Sector Agenda for Public Service Reform by Nick Aldridge is published by the Social Market Foundation (July 2005).

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