“ Big Society” and the invitation to run the government of Britain? Urban Forum works to influence national policy to bring about effective change for local communities, by acting as bridge between policymakers and the community sector. We undertake research and policy development, produce information and runs events, all designed to inform policy-making and to support community groups to influence decision-making. In the run up to the election we set out a number of policy asks in the form of 10 Big ideas for 2010 entitled “The Road to May the 6th” - continuation of driving theme and driver theory test First - look at the new coalition’s priorities Second - look at how the new coalition measures up to our policy asks around Involvement and influence. Finally - a think about some of the challenges and opportunities for the voluntary and community sector in the wake of the new government. Early days First things first though and a couple of warm up slides to begin with
As we know it wasn’t a landslide victory for the Tories by any means! The good news was that it was bad news for the far right parties who were hoping that loss of faith in the political system was going to boost their success. The BNP gained no seats and lost nearly half of all their councillors. These results are hugely encouraging for those working with communities, striving for greater equality, tolerance and inclusivity - and we can’t sit back and become complacent now!
Anyway back to the coalition – Clegg and Cam have merged into what is fondly being badged by some as the Condemns!
So who are some of the key figures for the VCS to look out for and what messages are they conveying? Well – we’ve got Nick Hurd as the new Charities Minister, (Conservative MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner). It’s also worth mentioning that Nick championed the introduction of the Sustainable Communities Act and so he get’s a thumbs up for being Green (not a member of the Greens mind you) Note - the Tories said before the election that it would be renamed the Office for Civil Society
Then we’ve got Eric Pickles - the new Secretary of State for CLG. In the Con-Lib government agreement the parties are committed to a &quot;radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups. This will include a full review of local government finance.“
Hot off the press – in an open letter to Sector from Nick Hurd, the new Coalition has laid out a number of quick wins (priorities) partly based on their Green Paper last Year – entitled “Voluntary Action in the 21 st Century” and expanding on some of their manifesto details: They are planning to focus on three key issues: Making it easier to run a charity, social enterprise or voluntary organisation Getting more resources into the sector & strengthening its independence and resilience Making it easier for sector organisations to work with the State
Making it easier to run a charity, social enterprise or voluntary organisation The launch of a joint task force between the cabinet Office and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills promises to reduce the amount of regulation, monitoring and reporting small orgs How to reduce Reduction of bureaucracy around Gift Aid Improving the effectiveness of VCS infrastructure - which is sort of code for a move towards infrastructure organisations having to prove their value for money.
The creation of a Big Society Bank - in a bid to get more access to strategic capital to social entrepreneurs the from unclaimed bank assets – this will be aimed at market intermediaries who are supporting innovative charities and social enterprises “ Fair Deal on Grants” - with 3 core elements: a) Reforming of the Big Lottery Fund to ensure that 100% of it’s grants go to charities and VCO (as opposed to statutory organisations) . Encouragement for better practice in Government grant making including greater transparency in expenditure; access to easier online info around which grants are available and c) a new ‘Community Grant programme” for neighbourhood groups in the most deprived areas of the UK - using the revenue (estimated at £160M ) from the Future Builders fund and based on match-funding. Inspiring more volunteering of civil servants as well as training an army of 5000 Community organisers to galvanise social action and launch an annual “Big Society Day” to encourage more volunteering. Launch a flagship “National Citizen Service’ programme for 16 year olds to give them the skills to be ‘active citizens’. Finally – more opportunities for VCOs, co-operatives and social enterprises to deliver better public services across a broad range of policy services – new schools, rehab of offenders, welfare to work, public health, energy efficiency: They say they are “open to any willing and credible providers”……
The government want to see longer term contracts and consistency based on outcomes rather than micro-management. Encouraging the participation of smaller organisations to tackle the toughest social problems and “not for dividend organisations” to bid on the basis of price (not cost and so to be free to earn a return on investment if they’re saving taxpayers money). Office for Civil Society to sit within the Cabinet Office and replace the OTS to take a lead role in delivering the Big Society Agenda. They also plan to retain the commission for the Compact as an independent monitor to ensure the gov has no breaches.
So clearly a busy time ahead for Nick and the Office for Civil Society in delivering “Big Society” – Manifestos issue – differentiation - the new coalition’s policies are being built on the same broad foundations.
So how do the coalitions priorities measure up to our Big asks around involvement then?
Well, evidently Big Society is all about involvement…. We asked for priority to be given to activity which will involve all sections of the community and that equality impact assessments should be embedded in decision-making and community engagement activities including the implementation of the Duty to Involve. This must be central to performance of partners and agencies. Why? Because women, BME communities and other minorities continue to be under-represented in local policy making forums and few LSPs carry out equality impact assessments to monitor representation. This undermines efforts to reduce inequality and weakens the quality of decision-making. One step forward and one back and delays possible. - Neighbourhood grants in deprived areas and targeting inequalities in the health service. - There was also talk of Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights (but risks weakening the rights of excluded groups) if rights remain unaffected then why change things? Proposal of specific funding for disabled people to become councillors and would enforce gender pay audits on companies that discriminate. Social Tariffs to assist poorer households with electricity and gas payments were floated in the Lib Dems So overall - other than the grants mentioned earlier then the proposals do seem to lack measures to support the poorest groups and involve excluded groups
All the evidence tells us that community involvement in policy-making needs to be resourced. To be fair to the coalition, which ever party had won there was always a real risk that this is an area at risk of cuts with the current squeeze on public finance. We also know that communities get “consultation fatigue as different departments run parallel engagement processes. LSPs and their partners should be required to introduce joined-up engagement strategies and to jointly resource structures for meaningful involvement. This needs to be based on existing best practice, with resources targeted for supporting the involvement of communities currently under-represented in decision-making. Currently we have a legal duty on authorities to inform, consult and involve local people in decision making across all public functions. There are initiatives such as neighbourhood agreements, petitions, participatory budgeting, petitioning and following the Total Place pilots – plans to mainstream them. So what now? – Well we can be assured that something similar to Total Place will certainly happen - in order to make cuts (efficiency savings). Well one of the eye catchers of the manifestos has been this idea of an “army of neighbourhood organisers” providing support for community groups, including enabling them to encourage decision making. We know that resources would be directed away from Futurebuilders for neighbourhood grants and the current Comprehensive Area Assessment will be scrapped, as will obviously national targets - replacing Councils with a “general power of competence”. The Lib Dems proposed Neighbourhood Justice panels giving people a say over petty criminals – but nothing on this stuff yet. The verdict – well its partly a swing to the left and all about self-help. Some big ideas and visions in the Big society and localist credentials all around from the Lib Dems – however for all of us who have been pushing involvement for years it will be interesting to see if they’ve got a secret weapon to make it happen and…..is the neighbourhood army going to be sent into battle with the necessary equipment (i.e. resources and infrastructure) so maybe – one step forward and one step back.
We still advocate that local government and the VCS should work more effectively to strengthen relationships and support activity to improve communication between cllrs and their communities. As we all know, public faith in the political system is widely recognised to be in crisis and whilst much of the focus has been at the national level, local democracy has been equally affected with low voter turn outs and low awareness of who our local councillors are or how they work! Evidence from Urban Forum research suggests that poor communication between the VCS and cllrs is a major barrier. Developing the role of cllrs to be community leaders and more directly accountable is key to building legitimacy and an effective representative and participative democracy. Our verdict….. Well it’s a bit of a mix of not much light at the end of the tunnel WHILST at the same time the Lib Dems were moving in the right direction so hopefully there may be a decent combination!! The parties are pretty much at odds with their ideas on political reform and whilst the Tories touted “collaborative Democracy” - which is really the cross party consensus on greater public accountability and mutualisation of public services (anyone up for running their own school or rail network? , the Lib Demms wanted so much more… Overall- There are promises of support for the Third Sector as well as commissioning assistance for the sector to deliver public services (with a proviso around return on investment). Rather limited ambition of national political reform and cllrs don’t really get much of a mention!
The planning process continues to seem complex and inaccessible - with the minority of people who engage in it when there’s a problem. More still needs to be done by the public and Voluntary sector to involve local people in planning at all levels form setting priorities for development and improvement through to making planning decisions and designing new developments. The Tories propose a move to “Open Source Planning “with neighbourhood development plans. Regional Plans and the Infrastructure Planning commission would be scrapped. A tariff would be paid by developers to Local Authorities for Amenities with a proportion being kept by the affected neighbourhood. The Lib Demms proposed a majour over-haul of the planning system with a much greater emphasis on local competition and community rights of appeal where decisions go against local plans. Communities would also be given new powers to protect green space. Verdict – this gets the thumbs up by us. Overall whilst open source planning sounds like an internet nightmare, there are major advances from both the parties and hard to fault. The devil as ever, will be in the detail!
So the challenges and opportunities ahead. So whilst it’s been suggested that there’s no need convincing the coalition of need to protect voluntary action – as they were all convinced. There is an idea that the hung position will allow many more smaller voices to influence policy nationally. The challenge is ensuring that there is strong leadership nationally which translates to the local level showing that there will be a price to pay for cuts to the sector. Contacting local MPs and new cllrs - letting them know/reminding them about your work and current partnerships and presence are useful things to do. We all know the second statement and we’ll need to strengthen our cases to convince our worth in the near future. Are there opportunities to branch out/expand work areas – can we offer support and direction to help equip front line organisations to operate in a co-operative manner and broadening horizons on service delivery without compromising missions/values? With the current assessment and performance regime changing so radically (scrapping the CAA and presumably the monitoring of the likes of the Duty to involve) what can the sector do in the first instance to ensure we’re fully involved in decision making? As much as most people dislike National indicators – we still need a balance We need to drive it home to our new government that we need to bring people into every stage through effective communication and involvement – and this won’t happen magically on it’s own.
Then hopefully this won’t happen!
What now? Involvement and influence, post election Kate Hathway Network Development Officer Urban Forum www.urbanforum.org.uk