The voluntary sector must speak and act as never before in 2015

John TizardCommunities across the country have borne the brunt of austerity and related policies. They have experienced the adverse effects of a raft of unpleasant and destructive policies and social conditions including public expenditure cuts, rising poverty and inequality, the inadequacy of supply of affordable homes, and much more.

Some communities have felt isolated as the political rhetoric and media stories about immigration and social security claimants have been ramped up – usually ever further from evidence-based reality. Social and community cohesion has never been more important.

Tragically, communities now have to brace themselves for another year of more austerity and cuts. To compound the challenge faced by some of the most vulnerable places, the public sector is too often reducing their financial support for communities and for those voluntary community organisations whose purpose is to support them.  Thankfully, there are some (though far too few) local authorities investing more to build community resilience. Others must be persuaded to follow suit.

There is a proud and powerful record of communities coming together in the face hardship and challenge.  Communities find ways to build resilience and to secure cohesion (and in some cases survival) for local people, sometimes in spite of local government and other public sector agencies.

This approach is built on the concepts of solidarity, self-help, fraternalism and sororalism, and even entrepreneurialism. Trade unionism, co-operativism and voluntary community social action are all manifestations of this approach.  In some cases, it may be underpinned by faith and ethnic bonds too. This country has a proud history of such community activism, which should not be regarded as an alternative but a complement to active government.  Indeed, some of the finest local authority achievements have arisen from effective collaboration between local government and communities. This has been the case for centuries.

The voluntary sector must push back against the idea that markets

are always the answer and that the only value that matters is price. 

However, the last few decades have seen an unprecedented promotion of a cocktail of individualism, ‘self’, marketisation, and a ‘smaller state’. Collectivism (both voluntary community-based collectivism and state tax-funded collectivism) have been chipped away at and belittled by many politicians and much of the media.  And yet, the human urge to conjoin and seek mutual protection and gain remains a strong motivator within communities and across the country.

The Conservative party acknowledged this when it launched the now much ridiculed ‘Big Society’ but one of its flaws was the sometimes spoken but always implied assumption that it was a substitute for – rather than an addition to – an active state. And then we have faced the even more inaccurate assertion that the voluntary sector’s natural and possibly historic role had been to contract with the state whilst lowering or even silencing its own voice.  The lobbying act is the latest (but likely most effective) government attempt to hinder the ability of the community and wider voluntary sector from speaking up for their beneficiaries and communities. Taken together, it seems to me that the last five years have been a missed opportunity for government to work with the community and voluntary sector to address social challenges, design new ways of delivering public services and making the concept of the ‘Big Society’ real.

The voluntary and community sector must protect its independence while recognising and respecting that it and the state are both separate and interdependent. The government should do the same.

This New Year, with a general election little more than four months away, is a very important time for the English voluntary and community sector – English because the political discourse and to some extent the policies are different in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  It has to find its confidence at local and national level.  It has to make the case for greater equality and fairness; for genuine localism that involves and empowers communities; and for a combination of state and voluntary collectivism.

At the neighbourhood and community level, the sector and its formal and informal network of organisations and groups has an opportunity (and all too often a desperate need) to support communities to survive and thrive in spite of public policy and economic conditions.

At the place level, the sector has to be inside town halls, influencing and collaborating in the design and implementation of a wide range of social, welfare, economic and environmental programmes; challenging and opposing where necessary; and offering alternative approaches.

At the local, place, sub-regional, regional and national levels, it has to find the confidence to raise its voice even when this may not be popular with politicians, public officials, the media and some sections of the community.  It has to campaign, influence and organise. Of course, the sector will wish to be involved in service provision but this does not have to prevent it from arguing against the causes of the symptoms which its services may be addressing – food bank provision is a good example of the sector meeting needs whilst challenging many of the policies that create in-work poverty.

The sector has to be ready to challenge more than individual policies and, in my opinion, may often have to challenge the underlying ideology of governments and their macro-economic and social policies. The sector can, and in my view must, push back against the idea that markets and marketisation are always the answer and that the only value that matters is price.  This is false economics and simply does no good for many millions of people.

This year can be the year when the tide turns but this will require bold, committed and insightful leadership at the national, place and community levels. Above all, it will require the voluntary and community sector to return to its core values and purpose as the champion of communities and those who form those communities, as never before.


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