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Devolution is an opportunity for charities—embrace it!

By Patrick Murray 3 December 2015

As the ‘Devolution Revolution’ gathered pace last week, with a host of new deals confirmed across many of England’s major cities, the potential for charities to help transform local communities took a step forwards.

Some remain skeptical of the government’s devolution agenda. A few devo-skeptics hark back to a simpler time for local authorities and their relationships with the voluntary sector, referencing the pre-2010 local authority world as if it were a mythical unicorn. But from my time as a councillor I’m afraid I remember something resembling a donkey with a traffic cone stuck to it’s nose. There were 3% year-on-year efficiency savings, and further cuts every year to our ‘Supporting People’ programme, which paid for preventative, housing-based services often delivered by the voluntary sector. Meanwhile getting any new powers at all was like getting blood out of a stone.

Of course, that’s not to downplay the effects of recent austerity on councils. The ties on the strait-jacket that local authorities have lived in for years are being tightened to extremes. The LGA estimates a 40% real terms reduction in funding since 2010 before we even get to the cuts passed on in last week’s Spending Review. The impact of this on the voluntary sector has been stark. That old ‘Supporting People’ programme is all but gone, and crucial community provisions, from libraries to children centres, have been hit hard.

So devo-skeptics do have a point—up to a point. But the current round of devolution deals is a positive step. City-regions are being given quite a lot of power over big ticket policy areas—transport, housing, skills, health and social care. Even if some of the deals look quite similar, local strategy and implementation will look quite different depending on where you are in the UK.

There should be real opportunities for charities in this. Why? Because to achieve real transformation, devolution must be about bringing power outside of—as well as ‘down’—the state, and into the hands of active citizens and communities. Those that understand this will be the most successful in making devolution work. The days when councils delivered everything are long gone—now they must act as shapers of their areas.

So the question charities should be asking about devolution is not ‘is this really happening?’ but ‘what are we going to do about it?’. How best can the sector access the opportunities devolution offers them? Well, it’s critical that charities don’t sit back and wait for councils and councillors to realise charities’ worth and what they can bring to the table. The sector needs to be knocking on doors, making a clear offer of what they can do to help active citizens shape their communities.

There are two principles I would suggest charities should adopt to make this happen:

  1. Collaborate: This is a busy time for short-handed local authorities, and it’s unlikely people will have the time to meet lots of different organisations, all making a slightly different offer. So join together across areas and make sure you have a louder collective voice. This is something that has worked well for housing associations across the Greater Manchester devolved region
  2. Demonstrate your impact: This louder collective voice must be backed up by an evidence base of your impact across an area. Charities should look at what they can do to build up a broader picture of what the impact of their work is, to make a case for why it belongs in these new, devolved societies.

Of course there are still issues with the devolution agenda—some areas will rise to the challenges better than others, and one can’t avoid the financial context, or the fate of those areas without ‘devo deals’. However, this is really the start of the journey, not the end, and the opportunities are undoubtedly out there for charities. We just need to go out there and grab them.