Local authorities need to value infrastructure, not try and deliver it

As an ex Chief Officer of Darlington CVS, now Evolution, I was dismayed to hear that Darlington Borough Council have decided not to continue to resource Evolution, the local support organisation (CVS) for Darlington charities and community groups, which has since announced it will now close this summer. Instead they feel the Council can offer some of the core infrastructure support functions in-house and are putting a small contract out to support volunteering.

This story is one more example of the increasing fragility of VCSE infrastructure organisations across the North East and indeed the country. GVOC (Gateshead Voluntary Organisations Council) have recently sent out a cry for help and although they will survive, it will be in a much reduced form. We also know of other infrastructure bodies are only able to continue due to reserves, having had their Local Authority support withdrawn.

This very much reflects the national picture as NAVCA’s latest quarterly survey tracking trends in local voluntary action shows, with record levels of pessimism about the financial prospects for local charities and community groups and that 68% of  infrastructure bodies expecting their own financial situation will get worse.

What angers me in all of this is that the value of good infrastructure support at local level, despite a strong positive evidence base, is still undervalued by local public sector partners. As the government continues to make cuts to public sector services, local organisations and communities are increasingly having to fill the gaps and it is even more essential they have the support they need to build their capacity to enable them to support those most in need.

I realise that money is tight and getting tighter but there appears to be a prevailing short-sightedness on the part of public sector bodies that fails to recognise that investment in effective community infrastructure now will reap rewards both in the short and longer term.  To destabilise that support now will in time have a negative impact, not only on the voluntary sector but the communities it supports and create more demand for public services.

In addition the notion that some of the core functions of an infrastructure body can be delivered by local authorities demonstrates a lack of understanding of those core functions of a local development agency. In essence infrastructure organisations are rooted in local communities, independent and locally driven and provide a mechanism for representing those communities and groups at policy level. How will those organisations and groups have a collective voice and representation via the local authority, might there be a conflict of interest here!

However, it’s not all doom and gloom.  Within our region we have at least one positive example of an NHS partner contributing funding towards a local infrastructure organisation in addition to the local authority.  This is no doubt in recognition of the growing evidence base of the value of social prescribing and the positive work infrastructure organisations can do to ensure there is a strong market place of social providers out there.

We also have the Care Act coming into being from April 2015 which recognises the value of ‘universal services’ within the community in supporting an individual’s wellbeing.  It introduces a duty for local authorities to ensure access and signpost to a range of services to prevent, reduce and delay the need for care services. Hopefully in implementing this legislation there will be recognition of the value of local infrastructure organisation in supporting development and sustainability of a diverse mix of universal services and support.

So my plea to our public sector partners is that in these times of austerity, as public sector funding reduces and demand rises daily, effective local infrastructure is needed more than ever so please don’t throw the baby out with the bath water as it will come back to haunt you.