By Alex Boys, Chief Executive, One Walsall
In August the Government published its much-anticipated Civil Society Strategy; Building a future that works for everyone. Aside from renaming us (we’re now “the social sector”, apparently) it includes several interesting proposals to support the voluntary and community sector. If you’ve not had time to read all 120 pages, NCVO’s summary covers the main points.
The fact that a national strategy including plans to support our sector has been published is something of a positive. But what’s more encouraging is the progress being made in Walsall to develop new ways of working with our sector, and (re)build stronger relationships between the public, private and voluntary sectors.
I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that these relationships haven’t always been as strong as they could be, and, in some respects, Walsall has lagged behind in recognising the true value the voluntary and community sector delivers. Although now there does seem to be something of a quiet transformation taking place, illustrated by new approaches being adopted for working with the sector.
At its Cabinet meeting in September, Walsall Council adopted several proposals which will better recognise the impact of our sector and increase support for growth, including:
- A Community Asset Transfer Policy which seeks to provide a clearer, fairer and more supportive approach to transferring land and buildings to community management when there’s clear evidence it will benefit residents;
- A VCS/Public Sector Partnership Agreement setting out several pledges for how the Council (and eventually other public bodies) should work alongside the sector.
In addition, in its outcomes framework for the proposed Walsall Integrated Care Partnership, Walsall CCG has made explicit the important role of our sector plays in supporting resident health and wellbeing, and included proposals to help make sure it is supported.
Not only are these new ways of working very welcome progress, the way the sector has been engaged in developing them is also encouraging. Local groups have been involved beyond mere consultation, helping to shape design in a way which has achieved an end product likely to better support the sector. Whilst we’d have appreciated more time to work with our members on some these developments, we know there will be more scope to influence their continued development in future.
Similarly encouraging is the fact that, whilst these new policies and approaches closely reflect ambitions in the national Civil Society Strategy, they were in development long before its contents were published. This, I believe, demonstrates Walsall is no longer lagging in terms of thinking around the voluntary sector, and in some respects, we’re beginning to get ahead of the curve.
There is a question of whether this renewed commitment to partnership with the voluntary sector is reflective of the impact of ever shrinking public services budgets. Is it the case that, in these straightened times, public bodies such as the Council and CCG have less choice but to work more closely with the many charities and other not-for-profit groups in Walsall? Probably. Is it still the case that many of our members and the wider voluntary sector are struggling to meet demand whilst facing ongoing loss of local funding? Definitely.
There’s no denying that many facing extremely tough times may feel that “words on page” won’t change that. But I think it could, and we should see these developments as part of bigger change – there’s lots of very positive things being said about Walsall’s voluntary and community sector right now, and some tangible efforts to support it. I can only feel positive that a new way of working with and thinking about our sector will ultimately bring about better outcomes for all, especially Walsall’s communities.