Voluntary groups clash with local strategic partnerships

The vice chair of a Derbyshire CVS has spoken out against about the culture clash between the voluntary sector and local strategic partnerships - the non-statutory, multi-agency bodies that aim to bring together the public, private and voluntary sectors in each local authority.

Voluntary Action Bolsover was forced to close at the end of February when it failed to secure funding after falling out with its Local Strategic Partnership and losing a grant from Derbyshire County Council. Vice chair Ellie Lynall said that other charities may be suffering a similar fate.

"I've seen enough to think this is a trend which will continue and could become very damaging," she said. "It needs something doing about it."

The Bolsover case

Voluntary Action Bolsover fell out with Bolsover Local Strategic Partnership during discussions about the formation of a new unified voluntary infrastructure organisation to support the local community empowerment network. Lynall claims the charity was "kicked out" of the working group after it refused to join the new body, Voluntary Community Partners, as soon as it was formed.

"The Local Strategic Partnership expected us to throw everything in with this new organisation straight away," she said. "We were bullied very hard indeed.

"We couldn't do it because of our relationship with existing funders, as well as charity law, which forbids us from entering into something with an element of risk."

Derbyshire County Council subsequently withheld a £14,000 grant from Voluntary Action Bolsover. The charity was later forced to close – with the loss of five jobs - after bids worth £200,000 to the Big Lottery Fund either failed or weren't granted in time.
Lynall says that the Local Strategic Partnership probably went beyond its powers in expelling the charity from the working group.

"The Local Strategic Partnership is hiding behind its obligation to support the community empowerment network," she added. "But it also has an obligation to the whole voluntary sector through the Compact."

Richard Madin, communications officer at Bolsover Local Strategic Partnership, agreed that his organisation didn't have the authority to expel the charity, but denied Lynall's claims.

"It is patently untrue," he said. "Voluntary Action Bolsover chose to withdraw of its own volition and the door was left open for them. They didn't get the £14,000 because they didn't submit a business case for it to Derby County Council."

Culture clash not inevitable

Navca chief executive Kevin Curley was critical of Bolsover Local Strategic Partnership and described the collapse of Voluntary Action Bolsover as "a tragedy for local voluntary and community groups".

He insisted that a culture clash between the public and voluntary sector was not inevitable. "A community strategy should say: ‘if we are going to tackle people's needs we need a strong community sector,'" he said. "It shouldn't just be about efficient delivery of public services."

He also cited Dorset, Hertfordshire and even neighbouring parts of Derbyshire as places where "the local authority recognises that a healthy voluntary sector is a legitimate aim for the local area agreement".

"Problems like Bolsover are becoming less and less common," he insisted. "In Bolsover they just got it wrong."

Sector not used to box-ticking culture

Despite the problems, Lynall expressed "a lot of sympathy all round" about the competing priorities of local strategic partnerships, which are obliged to follow national guidelines, and voluntary organisations, who "want to get on with the job" of meeting needs as they see them, and aren't used to the "box-ticking" culture.

"It is hard for local government to interpret national targets in a way that has local relevance," she said. "Local needs cause complications that conflict with other priorities for local area agreement outputs."

Areas like Bolsover, with small populations and high need, are in a particularly difficult position, according to Lynall, because they can't provide big enough numbers to fulfil the targets of national initiatives.

"But the lack of transparency in working around these problems leads to local authority manipulation," she added. "Without an open, transparent and communicative authority, the battle is lost."

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