I didn’t hear Communities Secretary Eric Pickles’ speech at NCVO’s annual conference yesterday (though I was following it on twitter), but I did arrive soon afterwards for a drink and a natter with the assembled ranks of the VCS. The Secretary of State had earlier announced that he felt it was reasonable that local authorities did not disproportionately cut funding to voluntary and community groups and that he would consider using legislation to prevent it.
The reaction to his speech was not particularly positive and the impression I got was that most people were deeply sceptical and unimpressed with what they saw as just ‘warm words’ without action. This is entirely understandable given the daily pain of news about further cuts to the sector we are receiving. It is legitimate to point out that had the Secretary of State not frontloaded the cuts to local government (so that the deepest cuts happen in 2011-12,) the situation would not have been so bad.
Nonetheless I was surprised by the rubbishing I heard, characterised by one prominent sector leader disparagingly referring to the ‘Pickles Doctrine of Reasonableness’. These are pretty dark days for the sector and I for one am desperate to grab on to the bright spots of opportunity that might offer some hope of improvement in the future.
Whether the example of councils like Thurrock and Wolverhampton (who have fully protected their funding for the not-for-profit sector) can be followed more consistently, I don’t know. I know of a number of local authorities that are deeply committed to protecting as best they can, their funding for the VCS, but are still having to make cuts. Nor do I believe that every penny that flows through to charities is spent in the interests of those most in need. I even have to admit that I do not hold out a great deal of hope that things will change significantly in the short term as a result of Eric Pickles’ speech.
The one thing I think central government could to do to convince sceptics in the VCS and local government of their sincerity on this issue is to demonstrate leadership by example. We need to see Departments across Whitehall lining up to prove that they value the sector and that they too will ensure that the cuts in their funding will not be out of proportion with their own budget cuts. If we see that, perhaps more people will be prepared to take them at their word.
But for me the really interesting part of his speech was when he said that where Councils expected funding or support to need to be cut;
That is where I think we ought to be looking for opportunities. The chance, in effect, to get creative and explore whether there are ways to reconfigure or redesign the way things are done. That seems to me to play to the VCS’s strengths – creativity, innovation, efficiency, joining things up and finding ways to address needs and problems. I heard Locality’s Chief Executive, Steve Wyler, call for something very much along this lines recently – a right to reshape – and I thought then it sounded like a good idea.
It’s essential that we don’t solely focus on the here and now and the considerable challenges we all face in the short term. There is a long-game to play too and we must not let the opportunities slip away. I accept that this comes too late to save many organisations and jobs which are already gone or going. However that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.
I believe that legislation along these lines – as part of the package of community rights being introduced through the Localism Bill – could significantly strengthen not just the VCS but the public sector too. It could mean that, before any cuts were made, we’d have a chance to get people together to explore, openly and honestly, how savings might be made, how improvements could release other funds, or how the aim might be achieved in a different way. At the very least it might buy some breathing space.
Of course there are plenty of ‘ifs and buts’ and much would depend on the detail, but that’s my point. We will miss out on informing the detail if we’re too quick to reject the idea out of hand.
Whether or not this represents a change of heart or of policy for the Secretary of State, I don’t know. Nonetheless, I do recognise that Eric Pickles is attempting to offer the sector something and, if our collective response is to dismiss it, we may not get a second invitation.
I believe it would need a legislative underpinning and can only see this working through the Localism Bill. However to get this idea onto the statute books we will first need to recognise its potential and then make our voices heard loudly and clearly. Localism means central government devolving powers, but it does retain control of the framework within which decisions take place. A community right to review or redesign would be a positive step in my opinion and one we should lobby hard for.