The Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles MP has announced new guidance for councils under the banner of “a fair deal for the voluntary and community sector”.
But on whose terms is this deal fairer?
On the one hand the new “best value” guidance boasts greater financial protection for the voluntary and community sector. It warns councils not to pass on disproportionate funding cuts and to give at least three months warning of any reduction.
On the other hand, in a bid to cut red tape, the document skims over the complexity of building lasting relationships with the voluntary and community sector.
They have revoked guidance and plan to repeal statutory duties that were important cornerstones to supporting effective local relationships between councils, residents and other organisations.
Duty to Involve repealed
One of the duties that will be repealed is the Duty to Involve, which gives a legal right to citizens and service users to have a say in their local area and services.
This Duty emphasises the many different ways that people want to engage in local decisions, whether it is simply being informed or getting more closely involved in commissioning the service.
What remains, in its place, is a Duty to Consult local representatives.
It may seem difficult to draw a line between these two Duties, but the sense is a rolling back from real influence in local decision making. Our request for views from the 300 older people’s forums we work with resulted in an immediate and overwhelming response. It was clear that they felt removing the Duty to Involve was a detrimental step.
Consultation is often seen as a one-way tick-box process, which does not put residents’ views on an equal footing with the council.
Genuine involvement has been shown to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of local services. Yet a culture of community involvement has not yet been sufficiently embedded in public sector bodies.
With this in mind, it seems early days to say with confidence the Duty to Involve is not needed.
In recent months there has been a worrying shift away from the commitment of local councils to work in partnership with the voluntary and community sector.
The revoked guidance, Creating Strong, Safe and Prosperous Communities, set out principles for identifying and addressing shared priorities. It provided a foundation for joint strategic decision making and the space for sectors to come together and focus on improving outcomes for older people.
While we know that there are some excellent examples of collaborative working and places where this remains strong, local Age UKs report that in many areas opportunities for partnership working and joint decision making are already tangibly disappearing.
The new guidance gives a useful focus on the importance of consulting on individual services, but it fails to provide continued support for a shared vision for a local area based on an equal partnership.
Without a renewed local commitment to partnership working between the sectors, there is a danger that the value of this approach in improving outcomes for older people will be lost.
How does this affect you?
Age UK will be monitoring the impact these changes will have on engagement with local councils.
We would like to hear your views.
On balance, do you think the change in guidance and the repeal of the Duty to Involve will affect the level of engagement and influence between local government, residents and the voluntary and community sector?
Do you believe the Duty to Consult will meet your needs?
Have opportunities to engage with council decision making already changed over the last year and are they likely to change again?