Finding a way forward for charities and local government

By Patrick Murray 3 August 2016

Last week, I blogged about an asset-based approach to service provision, and about the importance of charities maximising relationships to deliver impact. We talk about this in more depth in our newly launched report Boldness in times of change: Rethinking the charity sector, which includes a look at local government and devolution, and the relationships charities hold there. Here’s a glance at our thoughts on the topic.

Relationships between charities and local authorities are under strain

For many charities, relationships with their local authorities are really important, but are currently under pressure. Once upon a time, grants were the staple of these relationships, but the shift to contracts has fundamentally changed the way charities and councils work with one another. And now, with local government bearing the brunt of austerity, larger, more generic contracts are being commissioned out, and are increasingly excluding smaller, more specialist charities.

And the landscape keeps on changing. In recent years, government policy has focused on spreading power to city regions, and to other local actors such as Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), academies and free schools, and prison governors. Some of these powers seem to bypass local authorities, with combined authorities taking the lead in the city region agenda. So with less money, and seemingly a more limited set of powers, charities may well ask: are local authorities the key players they should be building relationships with at a local level?

All parties must reconsider how they work with one another

The most innovative local actors—be they councils, metro mayors, PCCs or others—are taking cues from these changes to re-imagine their role. Instead of being focused on directly providing and commissioning services on their own, these local bodies are bringing together a broad range of local actors—including charities—to design and deliver local interventions to improve the lives of residents.

Ultimately, however, this devolution agenda is only as good as local decision making. Even if centrally agreed devolution deals look quite similar, it is still up to local politicians to make decisions about these areas of policy. This means it will look different in different areas, and that’s kind of the whole point. As Neil NcInroy, CEO of Centre for Local Economic Strategies and member of NPC’s Policy Advisory Board, recently said ‘This devolution is imperfect… I think we need to grab this opportunity, but grapple with making it better’. Again charities and the broader social sector are needed more than ever to help local policy makers think through what these new powers mean for their areas.

And what now for devolution in the post-referendum world? Does the likely Whitehall paralysis as government efforts become heavily focused on negotiating Brexit mean that other policy areas are excluded?

Well, as with many things related to revolutions, it’s too soon to tell. But there are voices such as Simon Parker of NLGN arguing strongly that Government should seize the opportunity to bring power back more directly to communities at a local level, and not default to a ‘Whitehall knows best’ approach. Moreover the space for innovative policy making to tackle some of the most intractable social problems has been opened up somewhat at a local level through the devolution agenda, and it may well be that the most interesting ideas come from this broader range of local actors.

NPC will work hard to convene these relationships over the coming months

So how can charities get involved and start to build new relationships to enable them to deliver real impact in their communities? These are questions we’ll be looking at in the coming months.

We hope that many charities will be able to join us and discuss how you are experiencing the devolution agenda, and how we can better open up the opportunities for the social sector.