News came this week that the members of Urban Forum had voted in favour of a proposal from trustees to wind up the organisation. The organisation had, for almost 20 years, supported grass-roots community groups to have influence over public policy and decision-making at a national and a local level.
As many of you will know I was Chief Executive of Urban Forum for a number of years (from 2004-2012) and the news made me extremely sad and also a bit cross.
Sad, because I can’t help asking myself whether there was anything I could have done differently or better to have ensured the organisation’s survival. When I left, around 18 months ago, I felt it was for the right reasons. Urban Forum was suffering from the massive cuts to public sector funding, exacerbated (but not started) with the election of the coalition government. Something needed to change and together with the trustees we develop a plan to move to a much more dispersed network-based model of operating. We felt this was not only prudent, in seeking to reduce the overall size and costs at the centre, but would also create opportunities for genuine bottom-up, community-led leadership to flourish. If I stayed, then the chances of that shift happening were far more limited. I still believe in the rationale I expressed at the time.
What I think became clear since I left was that, despite the huge effort put in by Urban Forum’s trustees (and particular mention must be made to the incredible work put in by John Houghton and Gethyn Williams) the community groups that the organisation served were facing their own challenges in sustaining themselves. There were not therefore in a position to take on the additional burdens of leading Urban Forum too.
Perhaps, with more time to build this network-based model of community support the organisation might have been able to establish a sufficiently strong base from which to grow. Perhaps not. Perhaps the organisation had run its course. I think the decision to wind up the organisation was the right one and the trustees and members have acted responsibly and with dignity.
I also cannot help feeling a little bit cross too. Cross at the failure of government to recognise the unique value that Urban Forum offered. Urban Forum was one of a tiny number of national organisations that specifically and exclusively sought to reflect the interests of community groups in deprived areas up and down the country that are the lifeblood of social action. If the government were serious about Big Society (remember that?) then how could they withdraw funding so blithely?
I am not suggesting that any organisation has a divine right to continued public funding….though I can think of a number of charities who government seem to believe they do. I am biased, I realise that, but I would not have joined the organisation if I had not believed the organisation offered something valuable, something different, something that was necessary to tackling inequality and deprivation. Its loss is a loss to the sector and to the wider social efforts at social justice.
I think there are a number of reasons why the government funding – from DCLG (who had supported the organisation financially for about 15 years) and Cabinet Office – ended. In part it was symptomatic of a shift in policy away from supporting neighbourhood based community-led regeneration. This started some years ago, when Labour lost patience (or interest?) in the whole neighbourhood renewal agenda. When the Coalition came in, they unashamedly threw the baby out with the bathwater, seeking new projects and organisations that made them feel they were doing something markedly different to the previous government. They soon realised that this ‘four legs good, two legs better’ wasn’t necessarily the best strategy – and some national infrastructure organisations managed to cling on – but many of the ‘new breed’ of social ventures were soon found out to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors. It’s my belief that considerable public money was wasted in this way.
Another reason Urban Forum fared less well than some of the other national charities was to do with its focus on smaller community groups in the most deprived areas. Inevitably these groups have less of a voice and influence in government (which rather underlined the need for them to be reflected!) and so it was easier for them to be dismissed. These groups do incredible work but are often fiercely independent – and I hope that this independent perspective was always reflected in how Urban Forum acted. We did not ‘play the game’ in the same way some choose to. We never believed that government funding should inhibit what we said. Some question whether charities that receive public funding can be truly independent. Urban Forum, to my mind, shone as a beacon for how this was possible…but may ultimately have contributed to its demise.
Urban Forum was a great organisation and one that stood out among national infrastructure organisations and membership bodies within the voluntary and community sector. It had great staff and dedicated and passionate membership and a board of trustees. It helped communities to have a stronger voice, to hold politicians and officials to account and to influence public policy. I am proud to have been a part of this.
Discussions are now underway to decide how best to ensure the organisation leaves a lasting legacy and its achievements and efforts do not disappear into the ether. Urban Forum’s demise will leave many grass-roots groups worse off and that cannot be good for the sector or for society at large.