A view from the North East - Opportunities to redress the balance and challenge inequalities for our communities

It is pertinent that in my last week as CEO of VONNE I attend a Convention for the North held in Newcastle bringing together cross sector and cross party leaders aiming to reset the positive, inclusive case for long term sustained ‘economic rebalancing’ – setting out bold policy initiatives that will unlock the potential of people and places in the north. This long term project has initial goals of influencing the spending review and utilising the withdrawal from the EU to support rebalancing.

Further devolution of power to the north is clearly a key ambition and it was encouraging that Andy Burnham acknowledged early on that this was needed across the north as a whole, not just the North West; and that the Convention's draft principles state the need to ensure an inclusive approach not simply focussed on the city regions. 

Three policy proposition papers drawn together through ‘source materials and interviews with political leaders, business and northern representative groups and statutory bodies’ were circulated for discussion on

  • Post- Brexit North
  • Skills
  • Transport

Seen as the key policy areas for this first Convention. Although it was stressed that these papers were meant merely as a catalyst for debate and in no way set out the policy position of the Convention it's not a good start that I'm not aware of any engagement with the VCSE sector in these initial interviews.

Once again it feels as if we are not seen as an equal and indeed vital partner within this collective Convention. However, it was encouraging to hear both questions from the floor and panel responses that recognised a need to include all sectors.

The post Brexit ambition for the Convention is to see a politically engaged and prosperous north benefitting from international trade and targeted investment. There is recognition of the huge challenges to overcome in achieving this, not least the high level of disenfranchisement felt by communities in the north. Greater powers and decision making around funding and policy devolved to local level with local politicians being accountable for decisions and a proposal to devolve place based budgets through the proposed ‘Shared prosperity fund’ replacing EU funding with ‘local accountability’. 

But what do we mean by local accountability?

There is talk in the cover note of ‘local authorities, businesses, universities and investors working together across the north to assess the implications of Brexit’ and the need for ‘city leaders working in tandem with the private sector needing to identify opportunities for places to define new paths and forge their future and ensure appropriate plans are put in place to realise them’.

Where are communities in this?
Where is the VCSE sector as champions of the communities they serve?

If place based approaches and devolution is to work we must stop talking about local politicians holding the ring on local decision making and try to move toward inclusive genuinely co–produced solutions.

Funding & Commissioning in Complexity

The end of the week gave me greater hope for the future at the Funding & Commissioning in Complexity: Putting it into practice event co-produced by Collaborate and VONNE and hosted by Newcastle University Business School. The event comes off the back of the Collaborate report launched last year which has generated significant interest from across sectors in seeking to radically change the way we approach funding, commissioning and delivery of services and programmes to support communities.

The event, attended by over 70 delegates from across sectors, heard from both public sector commissioners and VCSE provider organisations how they are putting this into practice. Some of this is going on within our own region and there appeared to be a real appetite from commissioners in the room to radically challenge the top down, over-bearing and often restrictive nature of commissioning and procuring services and move to develop complexity friendly and trust based approaches.  

It was also heartening to hear from VCSE sector leaders the recognition that the VCSE sector also needs to change, that many of us have, in seeking to adapt and survive in the world of public sector procurement, moved away from value based working; and a focus on what matters most to the communities we seek to support, not what the contract says we should deliver.

Its not going to be easy to move the tanker that is the ‘system’ but I am encouraged by some evidence of a real attempt to collaborate, change mindsets and cultures which is long overdue.

Perhaps austerity has acted as a catalyst for change and particularly here in the north where we have felt the impact so harshly. This combined with the potentially greater negative impact of Brexit and the emerging pressure to devolve greater power to the regions provides us with a potential to take a new approach to real co-production and shared decision making at local level, involving citizens and those who use, provide, fund and commission services.

Let’s take the opportunity whilst we can.