Opinion: A Bigger Society in Reading

The Big Society is, at best, an abstract concept. Nonetheless, it poses interesting and different questions for Liberal Democrats involved in local government and the voluntary sector.

In Reading, we have taken a principled decision to maintain overall levels of funding to the voluntary sector as part of our Conservative-Liberal Democrat joint administration. In fact, there is a small increase, alongside benefits in kind in the form of low-cost accommodation to the voluntary sector. This is set against a small decrease in the final year of a Labour administration whose warm words about the voluntary sector were not matched with genuine partnership.

The Reading approach, too, is one that is all too rare in other local authorities. In many parts of the UK, such as nearby Wokingham, the voluntary sector has been the subject of some of the sharpest cuts at all, seen as a soft target for cuts. For many voluntary organisations, this year has been the most traumatic for the sector for many years. With so much radical change in the air, community leaders as well as local government have needed to provide leadership that balances an understanding of communities with an understanding of the sector’s needs. Unfortunately some senior national figures with links to the Labour Party, such as ACEVO’s recently-knighted former Lambeth councillor Stephen Bubb, have taken to politically-motivated doom-mongering which is not going to help anyone.

In Reading, the umbrella group for the sector, Reading Voluntary Action, has shown leadership in the town and been a central part of a dialogue between the unitary Borough Council and the sector, as the council has moved to a process based more on commissioning. By contrast, in Wokingham the decision had been made, in secret, to cease funding to its umbrella body, effectively closing it, before any discussion about commissioning had started. Not clever: or, as Lib Dem opposition leader Prue Bray has put it, an ‘amazing mixture of short-sightedness, incompetence, secrecy and somewhat arrogant belief [the Tories] always know best’.

As the impact of the local government finance settlement translates into cold, hard facts in service provision, Reading is seeking positive opportunities for community involvement. This includes the pledge we have made of £220,000 of capital funding for the African Caribbean Community Group to refurbish and reopen Reading’s Central Club as a community centre – a prominent building left to rot for 5 years while Labour dithered. It is also going to need to include more dialogue with community groups to preserve some services.

Kevin Curley, Chief Executive of NACVA (National Association for Community and Voluntary Action), said recently in a speech that:

‘This has not happened by accident in Reading. Reading Voluntary Action has led the sector with political skill ensuring good relationships with key Council officers and Councillors of all parties. It’s made sure that Councillors understand what voluntary and community organisations do and why investing in them is such good value.’

That approach has been possible thanks to key Councillors using their understanding of the needs of the sector and of local communities. It has not been made easy by opportunist and unprincipled attacks by Labour which has locally tried to infiltrate community groups for political gain, a formal tactic of theirs as a leaked note reveals. It’s also fair to say that we have not always got it right – and, as anyone who knows me knows, I have had plenty to say when that has happened.

It’s also been subject to the distraction of philosophical discussions of what the ‘Big Society’ means. This has not always been helpful, given the lack of definition of the concept and the natural inclination of some groups to pursue the opportunities that may accompany it. Far better to do what Liberal Democrats are good at and have been for years – giving power back to local communities, in the true spirit of localism, and providing the support needed to see the voluntary sector through challenging but exciting times. The Reading model, delivered through joint working between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, is one that others would do well to follow.

Gareth Epps is a member of the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Policy Committee and spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats on Reading Borough Council for Communities, the Voluntary Sector and Enterprise. He is a Trustee of Reading Voluntary Action. He writes in a personal capacity.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Oh for pete’s sake look up the meaning of the word voluntary. It doesn’t need funding and it doesn’t need council officials – on salaries – poking their useless noses in. Can’t councils just stop looking for things to spoil?

    One of the reasons why it’s harder to get volunteers in this country is the insistence of the state of elbowing its way in and trying to take the credit. Volunteering really doesn’t need the state and that includes councils. Go away and mind your own business.

  • And what would be Dame Elisabeth Hoodless motivation? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12378974

    And now we learn that the Big Society Czar is suggesting that public employees should work part-time so that they have more time for volunteering. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/feb/08/big-society-councils-part-time-staff

  • Patrick Smith 8th Feb '11 - 8:00pm

    The Citizens Advice Bureau is allegedly part of the so-called `Big Society; but is being ear-marked for swinging cuts of up to 45% of this vitally important community building and individual problem solving resource being put in jeopardy in the name of the `National Deficit’.

    The most vulnerable members of society require and are those who benefir from the high quality advice offered by CAB in the local High Street.

    None of those who have ever used CAB`s excellent and unparalleled free community service- much run on voluntary help- would want to see it diminished.

  • @Rich
    I’ve always believed in volunteering, generally because it can be a great way to enjoy doing something outside your usual routine. I do a day a week now. Of the places I’ve volunteered over the years not one has ever received anything that in any way shape or form could be called help from the state.

    What several of them have had, in one particularly odious case to the point of destruction, is useless interference from people who arrived from the council to take over and tell us what to do. This was a particular trick of the labour government. They’d colonise something that was already there, wreck it and then tell the world what a wonderful new service they’d provided.

    The main point of labour’s rules on checking criminal records, of course, was to get the volunteers to sod off from any organisation set up to benefit children so the state could take it over. It worked. No sane man now volunteers to help the young.

    Volunteer groups don’t look for ‘funding’. It’s the paid people who think tagging the word volunteering onto what they do will get some money who pull that trick. Every group I’ve been involved with could fund itself, even if was a struggle. There are plenty of ways for real charities to raise money.

  • Tony Dawson 8th Feb '11 - 9:02pm

    In 26 years of working with the Voluntary Sector, I have been amazed at the remarkable variation in culture i have encountered in different places at different times. The roles of the local CVS in each area is pivotal. Some of them are efficient angels, others just empire-building add-ons to the ‘No-Mark’ Tendency of the Labour Party. Obviously, how a local authority will approach such an organisation will depend heavily upon both realities and perceptions.

  • “Oh for pete’s sake look up the meaning of the word voluntary. It doesn’t need funding”

    This must be one of the most staggeringly ignorant things I have ever read on LDV!

  • My big worry is that so many voluntary sector organisations are only just managing, and have been existing like that for many years. Even if Councils are not cutting grants, there are less funding opportunities, less services to bid to deliver, less chance to get full management costs built into them. Also less capacity of organisations, including Councils, that support voluntary organisations.
    And yes, voluntary organisations do need funds as well as volunteers. I have volunteered for one organisation for 36 years, but we need premises, support, training, even something to pay the phone and fuel bills.

  • Richard Church 8th Feb '11 - 11:51pm

    Well done Gareth and Reading Lib Dems. Here in Lib Dem run Northampton we too have protected support for voluntary groups from cuts, while the Tory run Northamptonshire County Council haven’t a clue about what any concept of the big society really means and are slashing funding to the voluntary sector.

    Many voluntary groups cannot simply be run by unpaid volunteers. They depend on professional staff and advice, premeses, etc. to operate. Voluntary activity ranges from managing accounts to cleaning toilets. The voluntary accountant may be supporting paid staff in their social activity, or the voluntary toilet cleaner may be dependent on paid administrative support to do their work. Both are volunteers, supprting and being supported by paid staff. It is absurd to think that volunteers and paid staff can work in isolation from each other.

  • An excellent update from Reading – an example of how best to approach this huge challenge facing local government. Thanks Gareth.

  • Ed The Snapper 9th Feb '11 - 8:24am

    The “Big Society” is a meaningless term that is being used as cover for laying-off public-sector workers and for cuttig budgets for voluntary organisations. I do volunteering and I welcome any funding form the local authority or the state. I do not see it as interfering. Our organisation needs financial help. I have no problem with being CRB-checked for my volunteering; in the light of incidents such as the Soham murders or Dunblane then that is entirely sensible. Lowly-paid workers have to choose whether to work extra paid hours or to do volunteering. One thing is for sure: we will not see wealthy politicians giving anything up in order to volunteer.

  • er Chris, think you don’t really understand the voluntary sector or what councils do. Or maybe in your neck of the woods you have very different arrangements to us down here in Berkshire.
    The voluntary sector needs funding to provide: premises, storage, IT, phones, stationery, training, equipment etc etc etc etc etc. Just because most of the work is done by volunteers doesn’t mean everything is free. And to help co-ordinate groups and effort, and supply expertise of various kinds across the sector locally, one or two paid staff are pretty essential.
    There are only limited ways to raise the money: grants from the public sector (usually local authorities), donations, or charging users – which is not possible a lot of the time as they don’t have any money. Which is why they need the help in the first place.
    As for the council interfering, there is certainly an issue with some councils trying to get services delivered on the cheap by voluntary groups who they then make subject to service level agreements and hold to the same standards and rules as companies and professional bodies, although not being prepared to fund them the same. Councils that do that fundamentally misunderstand what the voluntary sector is about and how to keep it healthy.

    PS Cheers for the namecheck Gareth. More details of what Wokingham Tories did to Voluntary Action Wokingham Borough can be found on my (sort of ) blog: pruebray.mycouncillor.org.uk

  • One worry I have is that as voluntary groups/charities will become more dependant on the Big Society Bank as Local Authority grants become scarce, decisions on funding criteria will be made centrally and maybe open to political bias, the PM has already said some groups will no longer get public money if they do not promote certain ideals, so who decides the criteria? will it be based on local need? will groups such as the ‘African Caribbean Community Group’ be refused funding in the future because it does not promote Englishness enough? (apologises to the ‘African Caribbean Community Group’ for all I know you may do)
    So for me the Big Society concept is just re-inventing the wheel but with more Government control.

  • I did voluntary work recently to help out a multi-cultural local community group and was very impressed with the woke done by volunteers there. I have also beein impressed with the work done by CAB (is that to be cut?) in giving their all to help mainly disadvantaged folk.

    Now one big issue the coalition government is radically curtailing (thank the Lord!) at last is the previous authoritarian government’s obsession with checking out volunteers and for that matter any people who give up their free time paid or not by having them to go through a CRB check .

    This check was to ensure people like Ian Huntley, the caretaker in Soham, didn’t manage to work with children (mark you he might still have got through the net). Of course as with other ‘Big Brother’ measures of the previous government such as the Anti Terrorism Act, its original scope and raison d’etre was vastly expnded to include everyone in its scope whether they worked with children or not, and treating everyone as guilty until proven innocent; which has also led famous children’s writers to stop going to visit schools because they do not wish to be treated as criminals by undergoing this CRB check (esp as they are never alone with the children)

    Now of course those still having direct access to kiddies such as teachers, TAs, coaches etc will still undergo the CRB but others who do not have close and unsupervised contact with children will not have to undergo such clout handed scrutiny. Removing such barriers to people who wish to volunteer their services is a major step this colition must ensure to encourage more folk to come fwd.; that of course also means local people being enabled to actually run their own groups and given the funds to do so without being told what to do by central government – ie top up not top down thank you!

  • Ed The Snapper 9th Feb '11 - 11:56pm

    I do not understand the fuss about CRB checking. I have been CRB checked and never felt it impinged on me in anyway. Under the new proposals would Ian Huntley or Thomas Hamilton have been CRB checked? I hope so.

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