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 Martin Gollan, Support and Development manager

Leaving an organisation that you’ve worked at for thirteen years is unquestionably a time for reflection and thinking what have you actually done all that time? This question becomes trickier if, as I have, you’ve been mainly working in the rather gnomic area of policy, networking and representation, where the journey between intention and result can prove to be a considerable and a winding one. 

Arriving at Newcastle CVS in 2005, it was a time of relative abundance for public sector budgets and spending. Newcastle City Council’s net revenue budget for 2005-06 was £348.5 million, an increase of £4.8m on the previous year. Contrast that with its budget proposals for 2019-20, where net revenue is set at £226.2 million, dropping to £223.2 million in 2020-21. 

Within the public sector, local government has been among the hardest hit by first the coalition and then the Conservative government’s budget cuts. In the last eight years Newcastle has had to make ‘savings’ of £267million; Gateshead Council has made savings of £158 million since 2010. 

In 2005 Partnerships, specifically Local Strategic Partnerships, were the model for creating better communities and solving social ills. The voluntary sector was seen as a key partner and funding was available to make sure it would be involved. 

My role was to ensure that voluntary sector representatives to the Newcastle Partnership’s nine themed partnerships including the Newcastle Partnership Board, Children’s Trust, Safe Newcastle and Neighbourhood Renewal Board were supported to carry out their role and the wider sector informed and involved partnership initiatives. 

At that time it seemed everyone simply had more time to attend forums, networks and partnership meetings. In the voluntary sector there was scope and the opportunity to meet, share information and be curious about how things might done or organised differently and to try things out. There was a commitment to giving time to the city’s partnerships and the plans and strategies that came out of them. 

Of course not everything in the garden was rosy. New Labour’s fondness of target setting and outcome frameworks could restrict and limit rather than enhance the voluntary sector’s ability to meet local challenges. In some quarters attitudes to the Newcastle Partnership and the Labour government’s approach began to sour.

However, public sector investment remained high. Even the impact of the 2008 financial crash wasn’t immediately felt as the government continued to maintain public spending at a workable level. 

Area Based Grant, introduced in 2008, brought together thirty eight previously separate funding streams including Connexions, Children’s Fund, Carers, Local Enterprise Growth Initiative and Working Neighbourhoods Fund, which replaced Neighbourhood Renewal Fund. 

Working Neighbourhood Fund, like NRF and like Single Regeneration Budget before it, was an important source of funding for local voluntary organisations. However, the gathering of previously separate funds into a single pot, in practice made it easier to reduce or cease specific funding streams without the fuss or controversy generated by ending a single standalone fund. This was a sign of what was to come. Another change was to adopt a commissioning and procurement for approach for Area Based Grant rather than manage it as a grant aid scheme. 

The formation in 2010 of the coalition government, its drive to significantly cut public spending, reorganisation of the NHS and wholesale changes to the social security system signalled a major shift that would increase pressures on many voluntary organisations and the communities they work with. 

The new government tried to reach out to the voluntary sector and communities with Big Society but it lacked substance and little concrete emerged from a programme that seemed to mirror the sense of satisfaction and entitlement that certain members of the cabinet were accused of possessing. 

Austerity has been the key motif since 2010. Regeneration funding has disappeared. Many local authorities ceased providing grant aid to the voluntary sector. Newcastle council bucked the trend, launching the Newcastle Fund and Gateshead Council continues to offer grants through the Thrive Fund. Both funds though, have budget cuts pencilled in over the next two years and will reduce in size. 

As grant aid has diminished, contracting and procurement has increased. For over a year Newcastle CVS and a small working group of voluntary organisations met regularly to set up what became the Blue Stone Consortium. Its aim was to provide a vehicle for consortium members to quickly respond to public sector procurement opportunities as they appeared. Our ability to read the tea leaves and anticipate the future was a little faulty however and the expected wave of contract opportunities have never materialised.  

Instead, the largest contracts, those let by central government, such Work Programme and Transforming Rehabilitation have been won by a small number of multinationals, including Carillion, which collapsed at the beginning of this year under the weight of debt and chronic mismanagement and Interserve, which is busy trying to shore up its debt to avoid imminent collapse. At local authority level it is the larger voluntary sector organisations that have dominated the contracting market. Our report from earlier this year, Do We Need to Talk considered the effect of the contracting culture on the voluntary sector, finding that the voluntary sector has not been immune to the behaviours and calamities of the private sector when it comes to contracting.

The Social Value Act was looked on by some (possibly many) to be the saviour, making the procurement process more accessible to small and medium sized voluntary sector and perhaps fairer but Social Value has still to prove its worth. Some  are beginning to question whether procurement and contracting itself has run out of steam and a new model is needed.  

In the meantime, crises abound, especially in mental health services but also in children and adult social care, while Universal Credit drives people into destitution. Voluntary organisations across Newcastle and Gateshead continue however to respond to these crises using all the resources, imagination and resolve available to them. 

My colleague Pam Jobbins (who is also leaving Newcastle CVS after a long stint), has, since November 2001, produced eleven issues a year of our health and social care bulletin, On the Hoof. The very first issue, printed on two pages of A4 and posted to Newcastle CVS members, included items about proposed cuts in adult social care, NHS re-structuring, and an invitation to the Health and Community Care Forum. 

Plus ca change!