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Can the voluntary sector help deliver the devolution revolution?

Source: PSE Feb/Mar 16

Barney Mynott, head of public affairs at the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA), talks to PSE about the opportunities and challenges in unlocking the devolution revolution.

Devolution could be the key to empowering local communities and delivering real social change, but there are concerns it is becoming a “very mechanistic” tool that has failed to engage with the people, PSE has been told. 

The head of public affairs at NAVCA, Barney Mynott, told us that with the current spending pressures facing local authorities “there is a real temptation to be cutting spending, especially on the voluntary sector”. 

But he is confident that the third sector can, in many areas, help councils transform local services and save money. But first they must be involved in the conversations. 

“Devolution has been talked about by national politicians, local politicians and civil servants, but at no point are people being involved in what this could mean,” he said. “That is a shame, especially around the issues of creating a social economy, but it is also a real wasted opportunity.” 

Social prescribing 

During a visit by PSE to NAVCA’s headquarters in Sheffield, a city which signed its devolution deal in October 2015, Mynott discussed how a research team from Sheffield Hallam University recently found that activities for those with complex long-term health conditions in Rotherham, run by the voluntary sector, have helped reduce hospital stays and improved social and emotional wellbeing. 

The research team’s three-year study looked at the benefits of social prescribing – a process that helps GPs link patients and carers to sources of support in their community – and suggested that the local NHS could save up to £1.1m over the next five years. 

“It is saving money, and people have more control over their lives, and it is building social capital,” said Mynott. “It is a small example of how the voluntary sector can help transform services to be better. That is what devolution can do, by brining control back to people. 

“The big drive in health is about person-centred care. This is how you can do it!” 

But he added that opportunities should not just be limited to health issues. He recalled that one NAVCA member has “quite a lot of involvement along the health side of things, as that is seen as a traditional voluntary sector area of work, but then the other parts of devolution they feel locked out of”. 

Key principles 

He also noted that the commissioning landscape has changed over the last 10 years, with the rise of contracts but a decline of grant funding. But a lot of the “smaller, locally based charities” actually deliver some of the best services. 

Just before our meeting with Mynott, NAVCA and Locality – whose chief executive, Tony Armstrong, is a frequent contributor to PSE – published a paper outlining the key principles they believe should underpin devolution. These include: 

  • Creating a social economy
  • Meaningful representation of the voluntary and community sector within new leadership structures
  • Ensuring accountability through effective community engagement
  • Decisions taken at the most local level appropriate
  • Working with local organisations to support local commissioning and local delivery of public services 

“Devolution could be a new way of approaching issues, that is what it could be! But at the minute it is not,” said Mynott. “I think this is because it is just about civil servants talking to politicians. 

“But I do have every sympathy with local authorities. One thing that NAVCA has always said about devolution is that it is really easy to have a go at local government, but most northern urban local authorities probably have half the money (in real terms) they had in 2010. They are firefighting. To their credit, there is no other part of government that has been able to make these levels of savings while maintaining services quite well.” 

Mynott said NAVCA members are “more than happy” to talk and engage with local authorities about devolution and how they can bring community groups together. 

“There is evidence that we can transform services, and rather than thinking you [councils] are spending money on the voluntary sector, you are actually investing in the community,” he said.

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