The community rights to challenge supply and to bid to own local assets can only work if councils develop constructive relationships with the voluntary sector
Last week I had the opportunity to be invited to a local voluntary and community sector (VCS) conference on the opportunities and challenges of the government’s localism and ‘community right to challenge’ policies.
And thus I found myself in Winchester for an event organised by Community Action Hampshire, Urban Forum and Locality. It was attended by colleagues from the local VCS in Hampshire and neighbouring areas, some council representatives and speakers from the Department of Communities and Local Government (CLG) and others with practical experience of attempting to implement this policy agenda.
The presentations and ensuing discussion made me realise that unless local authorities collaborate with their local VCS, the potential of these policies will never be fulfilled. Indeed, there is a serious risk that the policies being adopted will drive a wedge between local government and the VCS. This would be a disaster – not least for disadvantaged communities across the country.
When and if CLG and others promote these policies as a means of ‘doing more for less’, there is also a double risk that cynics will perceive them as simple attempts to cover up draconian public expenditure cuts. This will not win hearts and minds for what ought instead to have the potential to be truly transforming policies.
The discussion at Winchester focused on community budgets; the right to challenge to supply; and the right to bid for the ownership of public assets.
These are complex issues and have the potential to both offer great opportunity for the VCS – and, equally, to sink huge VCS flotillas. The former should be exploited and the latter avoided!
Neighbourhood community budgets should be seen as a chance to build a new set of relations between the VCS and local authorities and their partners. They should be about the transfer of power and resources from the town hall, the police, the NHS, Department for Work & Pensions and others to communities. They should embrace all community resources and capacity, including those in the formal and informal community sectors and local business.
Sadly, however, from my own anecdotal experience, too often local authorities are more concerned with their own resources; and fail to recognise the need to cede or share resources and power with communities, including the local VCS. Such restrained and cautious approaches will inevitably stifle community budgets and their potential to address citizens’ needs and aspirations.
The community rights to challenge supply and to bid to own community assets can only work if local authorities are willing to develop constructive but not unwieldy protocols and procedures with the local VCS. These are complex issues and it would be all too easy for local authorities to design over-elaborate systems that discourage or simply prevent the VCS from acting on behalf of local communities.
And the VCS will be wary of the risks and challenges that these policies could engender. However, they will see an opportunity to make difference for their beneficiaries if they can take advantage of the community rights to challenge. This requires positive action by local authorities.
A mixture of localism, the community right to challenge, community neighbourhood budgets, and significant public expenditure pressures and cuts could be a lethal cocktail – but it doesn’t have to be like this. My advice to local authorities is:
- in two-tier areas, aim to align county and district council approaches
- involve and seek to align the policies and practices of all other public sector agencies
- engage the local VCS and, in particular, the local community voluntary councils and similar representative bodies in the development of all policies and procedures in these areas
- agree sensible and practical protocols with the VCS on how these policies will be implemented
- ensure that the community right to challenge supply is integral to strategic commissioning
- ensure that procurement processes do not undermine the rights and opportunities for the VCS
- devolve responsibility for community neighbourhood budgets to those neighbourhoods and the local VCS
- offer financial and other support to communities to enable them to build capacity, as well as the local VCS to enable it to play a constructive role in these processes whilst safeguarding the VCS’s independence; and to build the commercial capacity of the sector to play a realistic role in the community challenge process
- as far as possible, use their procurement to secure local VCS provision
- ensure that commissioning, procurement and grant aid (yes let’s remember that is an important form of support too) focus on outcomes and enable the sector to be innovative and responsive whilst retaining its vital independence
- adopt and promote a clear narrative on the local authority’s commitment and vision for working with the local VCS, local businesses and local people to take advantage of the localism agenda for local benefit
- recognise and promote the virtues and values of a public service ethos, good employment practice, and community empowerment
At the end of the conference in Winchester, the VCS delegates were asked for their considered view on the agenda. The majority response was ‘it’s more complex than I expected, but I can see long-term benefits, if we ever live to the end of it’. Whilst this is not unexpected, it provides the basis for effective and inclusive local dialogue and collaboration between local government politicians and officials and the local VCS.
I left the conference enthused for what could be a great empowering agenda, but also full of questions and ideas; and with the overarching belief that local authorities and the VCS have to collaborate.