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Investment in VCSE Support infrastructure

Mon 5 Oct 2015

Regular readers may have read my impassioned plea last month, that recognises the true ‘value’ of the VCSE sector is not in its underpaid and overstretched (i.e. cheap) workforce, but in its needs-led, community driven, bottom-up ethos. Our argument for sector support (or infrastructure as it is sometimes known) is to provide scaffolding that nurtures such an ethos.

To this extent we welcome that part of the Staffordshire County Council statement just issued (read here) that states: ‘The voluntary sector is fundamental to improving quality of life for everyone in Staffordshire’. We agree 100%.

We also welcome the grown-up approach that if you are not yet sure what you want from an investment, then take a little more time to think about it, before you potentially waste some valuable resources. Obviously we will do our best to contribute constructively to the planned workshops later this month.

Some have unequivocally welcomed the commitment to further investment, but I am more measured in my response. We are all being asked to do more in the VCSE sector. To bear the brunt of a national austerity programme that is decimating local government services one after another. To placidly welcome a further half a million pound loss to sector investment, because about £2 million remains, somewhat misses the point. It either says that we don’t need that half a million; that the support services we have are more than sufficient and can cope with such a cut. Or it says that we should bear the same cuts as everyone else. Let me take these in turn.

First, I don’t believe we have great VCSE infrastructure in Staffordshire – in fact, you deserve better. We have a service that is patchy, disjointed and yes has historically been under-invested in by the public sector – not perhaps in the last decade, but community capacity takes generations to grow and can’t simply be imported from a neighbouring area overnight. We do need proper investment in sector infrastructure, but investment that works with us as Strategic Partners, with the same purpose and goals in mind; with Trust that we are in it to do the right thing for Staffordshire. Not investment that seeks to ‘buy’ sector and community participation in a transactional exchange. I hope and genuinely feel that Staffordshire County Council now get this, so I ask and implore them to resist the idea that such investment is not needed now, that we can cope, that we will be alright. We won’t be ok, the VCSE sector is working its socks off, burning itself out, struggling to keep its head above water. Further cuts now will not be ok.

Secondly, the above may be acknowledged, but why should we be any different to other council investments? Two reasons, firstly, I ask you to come and look at just how efficient we already are. We operate at the margins; there simply isn’t the kind of inbuilt organisational waste that perhaps (though I doubt it in many cases) still exists in some public bureaucracies. There never has been. Secondly, and I say this boldly, we’re the future. If you want to protect vulnerable people, to rekindle the kind of community spirit we all know used to exist (and still does actually, though marginalised and down-trodden), then you need us.

The idea that the sector is somehow too dependent on the state makes me laugh, then weep. Our sector is the only one that is not in debt, the only one that can actually balance its books. And what are council taxes and business rates, straight out of the pockets of the residents of Staffordshire for, if not to reinvest into our own communities.

So please let’s leave behind the outdated rhetoric that the sector is some kind of black hole into which money is poured – it’s not, it’s a beacon of light from which care and wellbeing, happiness, livelihood and sustainability flood our communities. With the same aims as much of the public sector and dare I suggest a better track record of delivery.

Cutting half a million, you should be investing half a million more! Not glibly, not thoughtlessly, but together we could plan such investment that would show a return several times over, in wellbeing and in pure hard cash.

So I finish on another plea. If you feel able to contribute to this debate then do so – click here – just a few short questions to help us and the county council in its thinking on this.

Best wishes, as ever,

Garry Jones, Chief Executive