The coming of the city region agenda has caused great excitement in local government land. But, questions remain. Is this a real revolution in the way we govern our country, or a cynical attempt to make localities carry the can for austerity? Do local authorities who join up in deals gain more power as a result, or merge themselves into a larger, characterless bloc that inexorably takes their identity away? Are the financial deals on the table good for the independence of local government, or a way of widening inequalities between regions and rewarding those who are already doing well?

The risks of devolution

In the community and charity sector, all of this change carries both potential opportunities and potential problems, as was shown by the interest in the topic at our annual conference back in October. For many charity players these are anxious times and local authority leaders need to be aware of that and act now to allay those fears.

From the point of view of a small or medium-sized charity, what appears like devolution from a Whitehall perspective looks a lot like re-centralisation. Imagine you’re in somewhere like Greater Manchester before ‘Devo Manc’ really takes hold. You have good relations with your local council, and perhaps your Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG). You know how they think, you know some of the characters on both the political and officer sides, and they know you and whether you are any good. They even try to make sure that some grants and small contracts come your way.

Now you see that the real power in Greater Manchester is going upwards towards what looks like what will become a ‘super’, elected mayor-led council with some super-sized CCG flanking it—all at a great distance from you, (probably physically, not just metaphorically). Your old relationships are of no use anymore. Even worse, the only funding available is through the big contracts that this vast edifice issues. You find it almost impossible to know what to pitch for, let alone how to actually win.

Equally, far from an opening up to civil society in all its forms, you fear the welcome coming together of different bits of the public sector—including health and social care—in a major new devolved Greater Manchester will cement powerful state sector players and freeze out the charity sector.

Charities have a part to play

Such a scenario not only spells bad news for charity and community groups, but also the inhabitants of devolved areas. The newly-empowered devo areas need to think this through and make sure they don’t let it happen. City and other devolution deals will see a lot of furniture uprooted and we don’t want it landing in the same old patterns, many of which have been barriers to better services and communities for decades. City regions have a chance to change the way they work, to focus more on preventative and demand-reducing activity and to be more asset-based around the capabilities of their communities.

In all these areas, the community and charity sector can play a major role; from delivering services, adding voice and energy to the area, mobilising voluntary action, and even bringing in philanthropic funding through community foundations and other means.

Will Devo Manc and others grasp the opportunity to change and work more collegiately with the voluntary sector? We must sincerely hope so, but the jury is still out.

A version of this article was originally published in the MJ.

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