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February 11, 2015

Do we have a cluttered landscape?

Not so long ago, the claim that Scotland is a cluttered landscape was frequently bandied about. The clutter referred to the seemingly ever growing number of intermediary organisations that support all the many different forms of activity on the ground. The inference being that this supporting infrastructure was too big and that much needed and ever more scarce resources were being diverted away from where they were needed the most. Of late this debate seems to have died away in Scotland but it has resurfaced big time down south.


As the Independent Commission on the Future of Local Infrastructure releases its recommendations, David Brindle explains what it could mean for the sector.

With a name like the Independent Commission on the Future of Local Infrastucture, it was always going to be a challenge for the review of support for local social action to set pulses racing outside the voluntary sector. Inside it, though, the commission’s report is already causing a bit of a stir.

And to some extent it’s designed to. By calling the report Change for Good , the commission aimed to send a twin message that not only did the sector’s infrastructure bodies need to embrace positive change, but they needed to understand there was no prospect of a return to a world of bounteous grant funding. If there was any doubt about that, Labour’s shadow minister for civil society ​, Lisa Nandy, made clear at the report launch that a Labour government would not be prising open the coffers. “There is not going to be a huge amount of money around,” she said. “I don’t think [austerity] is going away any time soon.”

The future for infrastructure bodies lay in collaboration and partnership within and beyond the sector, Nandy added. That would “bring in funding, bring in support, bring in power”.

There’s a clear sense that some in the sector still do not ​agree with this. Sara Llewellin, chair of the commission and chief executive of Barrow Cadbury Trust, said at the launch: “In infrastructure organisations, but also in the sector as a whole, a lot of people are waiting for the good times to come back or just waiting for this tough period to end.”

Others who do buy it are none the less nervous of the implications: even Navca, the umbrella body for local support and development agencies in England, and the sponsor of the commission, is wary of relying on partnerships with the private sector.

In a foreword to the commission report, Navca chair Caroline Schwaller welcomes its ​19 recommendations and commits to promoting them, but says: “If we have some reservations, they concern the extent of private-sector support, which cannot replace public funding of the community development and place-shaping activities at the centre of our members’ work.”

At the House of Commons launch, Schwaller referred to the main recommendation that “local infrastructure needs to be redesigned and creatively resourced to meet the challenges of tomorrow”. She mused: “Creatively resourced ​– now that’s an interesting term.”

What creative resourcing may or may not mean for Navca’s 350 local members and other infrastructure bodies will be teased out at a series of events planned to take forward the commission’s work, with a review of progress scheduled for early 2016.

Llewellin stressed that the commission had seen much inspirational work and innovation by local infrastructure bodies in its evidence gathering, which included a Q&A on the Voluntary Sector Network last summer. But she warned there were clear deficits in aspects such as use of modern technology.

Also speaking at the launch were civil society minister Rob Wilson and his predecessor Nick Hurd, who hosted the event and said that modernising infrastructure had been “one of the biggest headaches” of his four years in the job from 2010 to 2014. There had been no shortage of funds for change provided by government, Hurd claimed. The coalition had invested £30m in the Transforming Local Infrastructure Fund, but “I have to be honest and say it has not sorted the issue”.

Whether the commission’s report can help ​resolve the issue is likely to depend critically on the sector’s willingness to accept the case for change – let alone do it.