Brexit: what next for the VCSE sector?

Senior leaders from the voluntary community and social enterprise sector came together to discuss how to plan and prepare for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU at the VONNE annual conference on Thursday 18 October in Sunderland, an area which voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU.

The event was framed very carefully, in an introduction from Chair of VONNE Sir Paul Ennals CBE, to allow all delegates to engage in respectful debate, no matter how they voted or what their political views. The aim was to try and discuss the challenges and opportunities of Brexit.

Before introducing our keynote, and in an effort to be as democratic as possible!) Sir Paul asked delegates to participate in a poll to capture a snapshot of how prepared delegates felt. 

Our keynote, Karl Wilding (Head of Policy, NCVO) then outlined NCVO’s thinking on how Brexit will shape the landscape for the voluntary sector. Karl emphasised that the reality facing the UK is change ahead, we need to be ready for it, and the importance of the sector having these discussions.

His speech raised the uncomfortable truth that many in the sector did not see the result of the referendum in 2016 coming:

“How can it be that we, a sector built on and grounded in community action, fail to understand the concerns of those communities who voted for change?”

Karl stated that Brexit is likely to generate more demand from the sector, urged the conference to focus on the ‘what ifs’ for the future, and called for the sector to be proactive, show leadership and shape the agenda.

He finished his speech with a call for our sector to work hard to address divides in our communities and amplify their voices.

A longer version of his keynote is available on the NCVO website. And the slides are available on Dropbox.

Following lunch our panel speakers each gave a short overview. Jude Kirton-Darling, Labour MEP for the North East, opened with a very well received clarification of the current political situation and an observation that there are few regional bodies representing the North East, stating that we need one loud voice to make sure we’re heard in Westminster.  This is a role VONNE is very well placed to undertake and one we will be focusing on in future months as the date for withdrawal comes ever closer.

Following this, Jane Thomas from the Brexit Civil Society Alliance presented her work with civil society organisations, which pushes for the best possible policy outcomes, and echoed Jude in saying that that those furthest away from London will have the hardest time having their voices heard. 

Lizzie Hopkins from the UK Shared Prosperity Team then updated delegates on the consultation for the replacement for EU funding, stating that it’s intended to ensure inclusive growth.

Richard Baker gave an overview of the economic impacts on the region and stated that the VCSE sector isn’t alone in its struggles, the economy across the whole North East faces challenges post-Brexit.

Anna Round and Lucy Smith then put forward their thinking and called for the need to keep devolution on the agenda; that Brexit may provide an opportunity to embrace devolution, and emphasising the role the North East plays in The Northern Powerhouse agenda.

Next was Tony Armstrong from Locality who pointed out that there is little debate about truly reforming local and national economies in the noise around Brexit and emphasised the need for clarity around the UK SPF sooner rather than later. You can read Locality’s thinking around the UK SPF on their website.

He also gave a word of caution about how communities will react post-Brexit when their immediate environment and conditions don’t change. Will this lead to greater resentment and dissatisfaction?

We used to gather questions from the delegates in true democratic style and there followed a panel discussion allowing (almost) all the questions to be answered.

Key priorities from delegates included finding out how the sector can ensure the government pays more attention to our demands and voice; how to ensure the UK SPF consultation will allow those people most at risk of exclusion to be heard in the design of the new programme; and discussing how a sector which overwhelmingly believes in equality and diversity can represent the views of communities which, sometimes, don’t.

The workshops allowed delegates to hear more from individual speakers and also to debate amongst themselves what their key Brexit messages should be.

VONNE staff are in the process of compiling these notes and the captured workshop conversations and key messaging will be shared very shortly.

Key points that VONNE will take away from the event are that we shouldn’t shy away from the difficult conversations around the sector’s ability to represent and advocate for communities whose opinions we don’t always share and the vital need for a loud voice and regional representation for the North East VCSE sector.

We will be taking these ideas forward and developing them in the future.

If you would like to discuss these in more depth please contact