The role of the voluntary sector in creating better places

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This essay first appeared in the New Local Government Network‘s essay collection Unlocking the power of local, published on 15 November 2016.

The implications of Brexit will play out for years to come on the national and international stage. Yet, despite its global impact, research suggests that how people voted in the EU referendum was very much driven by local experiences.

Whether that was feeling marginalised in the North or misunderstood in the market towns of middle England, it is what was happening on people’s high streets that were big determinants of why they voted primarily to leave. Place matters.

It makes sense. Whatever the headline GDP figures, it is the strength or weakness of the local economy which shape our prospects and perspective, and our sense of identity and wellbeing. So how do we create places that thrive? Places which generate and sustain economic growth and social opportunity, and which crucially do not fall or leave anyone behind? Business, local government and the wider public sector are obviously key.

But the voluntary and community sector also has a vital role to play.

It needs to be central both to the debate about priorities and to the actual practice of local leadership. Ninety-seven per cent of the VCS is intimately connected to a particular place, with a turnover of less than £1m.

These small and medium sized charities have been developed by communities, with communities and for communities: people of goodwill coming together to right a wrong, meet a need or argue for better. From picking communities up after floods and riots, to providing lifelines for those suffering domestic abuse, to tackling loneliness amongst the elderly, engaging disaffected young people or integrating refugees, the VCS creates and provides the solutions, picking up the pieces where others fail. And it’s not just what they do that matters but how they do it.

They come from the community, employing local people, growing local leaders and spending money locally.

They regenerate local spaces, and provide focal points, catalysing action, development, resources and volunteering. Through their local entrepreneurship, collaborative leadership and positive action, they are past masters at doing more with less. The best of them are constantly identifying new ways to ensure not just that no one is left behind, but that people get ahead in the first place.

But too often their solutions are taken for granted or ignored. Too few see the VCS as partners, not just for providing vital services but for engaging communities and building a sense of place and purpose. Too few recognise and indeed cherish their ability to bring together citizens, communities, businesses, civic groups and statutory services to build bridges and galvanise action.

Sadly, too often the VCS are being actively marginalised. They aren’t included in strategic decisions.

And the switch from grants to contracts has seen a catastrophic fall in income of up to 44 per cent for small and medium sized charities.

Procurement processes that might work for bulk services like rubbish collection and an all-consuming focus on apparent economies of scale has resulted in unit cost being the only thing that matters, despite the complex human-centred nature of what charities are doing and the longterm value to communities of their broader role.

Yes, charities can be helped around tendering, and certainly commissioning and procurement should be improved. But we need to frame the discussion more broadly than that: not just treating the VCS as part of a centrally commissioned delivery chain, but encouraging and sustaining the role of the VCS in changing systems and places for the better.

We know some councils are actively thinking about this. For example, Camden is developing longer-term strategic relationships with local charities. Businesses too are building new partnerships, such as Lloyds Banking Group staff mentoring local charities supported by the Foundation and helping build their capacity. Local charities are front and centre to building and sustaining thriving communities. But they need to be front and centre in decision making too if we are going to help local communities take back control of their social and economic prospects.

Duncan Shrubsole, Director of Policy, Partnerships and Communications

@duncanshrubsole

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