Guest post: A view of localism from the ground

James_HarperThis is a guest post. James Harper is the manager of Beacon Counselling, a voluntary organisation based in Bramhall near Stockport. The organisation has been providing counselling for adults and young people in and around the Stockport area since 1984.

What is the Localism agenda?

If I’m honest, I fear that the Localism agenda is something that sounds good but, in reality, may deliver nothing. And I wonder if other people in the voluntary sector are thinking the same.

The Localism Act appears to devolve power away from national government to empower individuals, communities and local authorities to do more and tailor policies to their local area. On the whole, I’m all for this new direction, as active communities are vital to a healthy society.  However, this is a movement which has been growing for years and it is clearly nothing new. Is the Localism Act simply putting it into political terminology?

The Act is also part of the wider Big Society agenda.  Again, I am all for this in the sense that it aims to bring greater involvement from the voluntary and community sector (VCS) into the delivery of services and support to the public.  But the worrying perception, particularly from some in the statutory sector, that this is a cheap way to replace essential state-run services with services run by the VCS, is wrong.

And so is the idea that the VCS has all the answers. Whist we do have some great ideas, to translate good ideas into high quality services on a reasonable scale is not cheap, regardless of which sector does it.

Will the Localism Act make a difference to the voluntary sector?

If the principles that the bill aims to enshrine are really taken on board, then it will mean people have more influence in what happens locally, as they will have more say on planning, services, and the use of community buildings.

But what really matters is how it is implemented.

If these important principles are not properly put in place, then the Act comes across as merely a cynical attempt to devolve responsibility rather than power. Just yet another way to save money and pile more responsibility on to already overburdened people.

Would parents in all communities really want to (or even have the ability to) take over or set up their own school?  I know I wouldn’t want to – surely you need experts in education, safeguarding and a whole host of other things to do it properly?

Is it just bad timing?

Perhaps it is unfortunate that the cuts are occurring at the same time as the government is trying to create the Big Society. This clearly makes it harder to get positive about a brighter future when the news is so full of economic doom and gloom.

I do think the cuts are necessary though, as there has undoubtedly been duplication in the VCS and there is the need to save vast sums of money.  But the cuts were meant to be carried out in a way that saved frontline services and protected the VCS.  We know that isn’t happening in all areas. There have been cuts to charities in Stockport, some of which I know have had to make redundancies as a result.

In Stockport, where Beacon is based, I think that the approach by the council to both the cuts and the Big Society agenda has been good, with some very difficult decisions being made whilst trying to retain a constructive working environment. The council’s relationship with the VCS locally has been improving for several years here, and although there are frustrations on both sides, the conversations continue and a growing rapport is building. There has been a real openness and desire to understand our perspective from more and more staff at the council, which I do hope continues.

So what is the voluntary sector’s role in all this?

Personally, I think that that in order to have a thriving society and voluntary sector, that small organisations and groups need to be thriving too. Because this is where many of the great ideas for change in people’s lives come from. The encouragement and nurturing of individuals and groups, as well as the empowerment of communities, has always been a part of the voluntary sector’s work.

Hopefully, by engaging with the Localism Act, it will make it just a little easier for us, as a sector, to do this.

Do you agree with James? Do you think that the Localism Act will make it easier for the sector to shape communities? We welcome your comments below on this topic.

This blogpost is part of the series we are running on localism and public services. Contributers are from NCVO member organisations who have participated in the online yammer discussion on these topics as part of our ongoing Open Policy Review called Tell NCVO. 
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