Ron Simpson: Is voluntary and community sector in danger of losing its independence?

Opinion.

Opinion.

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One of the great strengths of Rutland is its voluntary and community sector. Its achievements within England’s smallest county are remarkable and the envy of many an urban visitor. As one visiting civil servant recently said of Uppingham, “What you have here is what government would like to see created everywhere. Collaborative and partnership working with the wellbeing of every citizen in mind; in this voluntary and community sector organisations have a significant role to play. ”

In recent years, partly driven by government funding cuts, national policy has empowered a more significant role for local authorities in distributing voluntary sector monies, increasingly making councils the vehicle through which the remaining limited funds flow. Those charities and community groups which have come to rely on local authority funding now find local political policy and dogma a growing part of everyday life. When bidding for funds, it has become increasingly important to not only have evidence of community need, but also to be in favour with those controlling our county halls.

Many in Rutland are proud of the county’s independence. This is particularly true of its many smaller community groups which, together, do so much to ensure the quality of life that many of us enjoy. Whether one is thinking of our faith groups, charities, health services, sports clubs, music, theatre, youth services or care of the elderly, it is their very independence that helps ensure such tremendous commitment to their objectives. It is true that many groups are embraced by national structures and have their overall mission prescribed for them. The vast majority of groups in Rutland however, derive their energy and commitment by implementing decision making at a local level. Long may it continue!

If one looks at public funding in Rutland over recent years, one can discern a shift of support from some groups and a move toward others. A significant example is revealed in the public papers of Rutland County Council with diminishing support for Voluntary Action for Rutland (VAR) and a noticeable increase in the resources being allocated to the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB). Similarly, one can detect a marked shift of funded activity away from the publicly funded but not very central VAR premises in Pillings Road and toward the council’s economic creation from the shell of Ashwell Prison.

To-date, all of this activity has had limited impact on the very many community groups which are not dependent on local authority funding. A new threat has however surfaced which could have a significant long term effect on the whole of the sector. This is local government’s attempt to exercise influence by facilitating the creation of a single infrastructure partner with which it might do business in the future.

A Leicestershire County Council backed initiative recently failed to merge a number of that county’s independent organisations into a single infrastructure 
agency. Consultants were employed to facilitate the argument that such a move would be for the economic good. I along with many others helped resist the change, arguing successfully that it was not in the public interest. Disappointingly a similar move is now under way in Rutland with a widely distributed survey inviting community and charitable groups to comment on the potential value of a new single voice for the sector. The logic is tempting. If the county council had a single recognised voluntary sector infrastructure partner it would be efficient and assist the cost effective distribution of public monies. It might also help remove duplication of effort at a time of scarce resources.

An alternative view, however, is that such a move would see much voluntary sector policy determined by only one or two people within the statutory sector. No matter how well intentioned, this cannot be good for democracy and will create a dependency for those who enter into such an arrangement. The fact that the independent voluntary sector in Rutland is currently represented by many voices ensures best value, consumer choice and opportunities for competitive tendering. Crucially, it also helps preserve a significant element of the very independence that helps make up the character and commitment of the community and charitable sector in Rutland. Collaboration and cooperation is good for the sector and is exemplified when county groups have come together in such independent structures as the Uppingham Neighbourhood Forum, the Rutland Consortium and One East Midlands. The voluntary and community sector needs its many voices and its many points of view. Its volunteers and employees will increasingly make their contribution elsewhere if they simply become an extension of a politically controlled statutory sector. Politicians please take note!