Block of flats

Building a better sense of community

By Dan Corry 11 September 2018

Why exactly the Government chose to do this in the middle of August—outside parliamentary time—is a good question. Ideally, it should have been to gather some good press coverage in a usually quiet time and perhaps knock the stories about former foreign secretary Boris Johnson and his particular views on what a few Muslim women wear out of the news. But it had nothing of much of interest for the hacks and so died the media death.

This is a shame. We should be talking about civil society—about charities, community groups, social enterprises, co-ops, volunteering—all the things that go to make a healthy, rewarding, pluralist, relationship-centred community.

And local authorities, struggling mightily with their finances, yet trying to do the best for their communities, should be at the front of the queue on this agenda.

So what was in this document that was of particular interest to local council leaders? Not that much directly. There was some welcome funding for initiatives from the rather convenient pot of dormant assets from banks, etc, which help young people transition into work and tackle financial exclusion.

There may be a wry smile or two in council chambers, as it is pretty thin funding from one department—the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport—to make up for many years of cuts to the local councils that used to pay for many of these services.

There was also a lot of noise about the Government feeling that the use of contracts for everything had gone too far, with severe consequences for the voluntary sector.

It finds them hard to bid for and win, so a ‘return’ to what it grandly calls Grants 2.0 is needed.

We shall see what that means for Government procurement. The recent collapse of the transforming rehabilitation contracts and the demise of the work programme might mean the era of enormous outsourced payment by results contracts is at an end, at national level, anyway.

What it means in other contexts is hard to tell, although several councils and other public bodies have at least been trying to include grants in their portfolio a bit more, not least to support their local voluntary sector.

Proposed changes to the Social Value Act, including adding goods in as well as services, will also have some ramifications for councils—although it is unclear what exactly they mean by saying they ‘will explore the suggestion that the Social Value Act should be applied to… areas…such as planning and community asset transfer’.

More important in terms of feel, was a renewed commitment from Government to the Compact – the agreement between the voluntary sector and the public sector that began in 1998 and was supposed to make each respect each other – but which withered on the vine after 2010.

Perhaps the Local Compacts, the council offshoots of the original programme, could make a comeback.

In addition, there are some decent nods towards more ‘place-based’ activities, involving the voluntary sector and philanthropy, partly via the community foundation movement as key elements—something that we at NPC have been pushing hard recently.

We should be pleased that the Government even feels it is worth addressing this area of policy.

There was a glaring lack of anything about civil society in either of the two major party manifestos in 2017.

This is not a transformative document, and has disappointed many in the charity sector who had hoped for more than a lot of ideas to be explored.

But, taken on its own terms, it can perhaps help us move forward to create a better society that benefits us all.

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This blog originally appeared in the Municipal Journal.