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There’s been a lot of emphasis on empowering local movements and the voluntary sector in the government’s Big Society agenda, epitomised in the Localism Act passed November 2011; but what effect do those local groups feel the programme will really have?

We at the Small Charities Coalition and Charity Trustee Networks contacted our near 6,000 strong network of small charities to ask their opinion. We have structured the article around general themes which the small charities raised in these early days of the act.

 

Engaging in the run up

There were a number of consultations leading up to the passing of the Act and although one participant Tony, Newlands Community Association mentioned that they “did lobby through Locality and Community Matters”, he was our only respondent to do so. Roy, Lifestones Community Healing Association explained that “From prior experience with consultations we often find they are a window dressing exercise…not a cost effective investment of our time.”

Potential empowerment

Richard, The Gap Community Centre highlighted the new Act’s potential to “give people more control over their communities.” In total 30% of respondents agreed in the opportunity the Act presents to increase local participation and bring communities closer together. Furthermore Peter, Noah’s Ark Centre suggested the Act might make it “easier to seize the opportunity to provide services…with the support from the local authority.” While unable to take advantage of the opportunities at present, Greg, Quarry Bank Community Association and Rajen, Hope & Chance “foresee it might be useful to have the right to list and purchase local assets.”

Exasperating community politics?

There was a concern felt by respondents that the transfer of decision making powers to local authorities could isolate some groups and cause “political infighting”, as stated by Tony, Newlands Community Association. Roy, Lifestones Community Healing Association expanded, saying “Prior structures were at least neutral from local biases, individual preferences and cultural leanings.”

Implications of changes in accountability

A number of charities highlighted issues arising from the decline of central government accountability in local matters. Beverley, Mothertongue, pointed out that “because central government will not legislate for standards and provision of interpreters, in some parts of the country local decisions may be made with hardly any provision for certain groups”. Similarly, Flick, Manchester Disabled People’s Access Group expressed concern that changes have been made “without safeguarding the rights of disabled people and access standards.”

Beyond the capacities of local groups

Although the Act is stated to be in the interest of small local groups, our sample group was skeptical as to whether they will be able to take advantage of the new environment, as Susan, The Core Centre stated they are “too small to consider using the powers and do not have the resources to do so” and Peter, Noah’s Ark Centre adds they “are already working at full capacity”. In light of this, Roy, Lifestones Community Healing Association concluded that rather than engaging their groups, the Act is “just…another changing circumstance that we have to absorb rather than something we have any ownership of shaping to our benefit or interest.” Jeremy, Oxfordshire Community Conservation and Rural Trusts agrees, explaining that for his charity “Frankly, changing policy regulation is merely a pain at this stage of our evolution”.

Full impact yet to be felt

As Jeremy from Oxfordshire Community Conservation and Rural Trusts put it “In principle the Act’s objective is wonderful…it is highly relevant to local charities but its effect will vary according to the vagaries of local political priorities.” Viv, Warley Woods Community Trust further questioned “how local organizations and authorities will be able to be more responsive to local issues when their jobs are being cut.” On top of this, Susan, The Core Centre feared that the Act will “probably be more of a threat than an opportunity as they may have to deal with even more organizations…and complicated structures…that do not have the expertise and back up that statutory authorities do."

Final thoughts


Demonstratively, there were only 11 respondents to our 5 questions on the Act which further illustrates the general tone and theme of our findings: the difficulty for small charities to engage with legislation changes and use them to their advantage. We are acutely aware of the thinly spread resources of small charities and fear that policy such as this may not be fully appreciated until it negatively impacts on the groups. To mitigate against this, we have condensed the Act to key points on our website wwww.smallcharities.org.uk which we encourage small charities to read, alongside Locality’s Quick Guides: http://locality.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Localism-Act-Briefing-Nov-2011.pdf and to contact their local authorities and community organisers to find out the specific changes in their locality.

Written by Elise Austin
Wednesday, 25 January 2012 9:09

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