The Voluntary and Community Sector actively contributes to the strategic priorities of Medway Council and play a crucial role in improving the lives of Medway residents. Following a range of commissioning activities from Medway Council, the Business Support Overview and Scrutiny Committee have requested to hear directly from the sector about the current state of play for organisations in Medway.
This paper outlines the questions that have been asked of the sector, with the feedback scheduled to be circulated in advance of the committee meeting, in order to inform the discussion.
Following a range of commissioning activities from Medway Council, the Committee had requested to hear directly from the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) about the current state of play for organisations in Medway.
Members considered a paper which outlined the questions that had been asked of the sector. The feedback received had been circulated in a supplementary agenda. The Head of Head of Health and Wellbeing Services clarified that an attempt had been made to hear from a range of VCS groups but the views expressed in the supplementary paper did not necessarily reflect the whole sector.
The Committee then heard from Jane Howard (CEO of Medway Voluntary Action) Dalia Halpern-Mathews (Independent Chair of the VCS Leaders Network) and John Morley (Former Independent Chair of the VCS Leaders Network and CEO of Age UK Medway) who made the following points:
· The VCS in Medway was significant with 1,143 organisations in total covering a wide breadth of issues. It was a collection of organisations who had voluntarily started to address a need and was not just a collection of volunteers.
· The main challenges facing the sector were: income, awareness, lack of staff, volunteers and safeguarding.
· The workforce tended to be highly educated, professional and skilled
· The sector could deploy resources quickly to make a difference and was able to collaborate and share resources and expertise. Services could be delivered more cheaply than statutory services.
· Without the sector the gaps in service delivery would be greater.
· Charities were closing due to a lack of money or loss of contracts.
· The voluntary sector faced pressures to deliver more and recognised that in a time of austerity more needed to be done for less.
· Going forward the VCS needed to be a major partner of the Council.
· There was a need to think creatively and for everyone to maximise their assets to bring in extra funding.
· How the sector was funded and how commissioning worked should be looked at.
· The City of Culture Bid was an opportunity to galvanise local engagement, increase funding and improve the health and wellbeing of the area.
· Different models in other parts of the country were highlighted which had led to more responsive services, a reduction in long term costs and greater investment in the local economy and it was suggested these should be looked at to see what might work in Medway.
Members thanked the VCS representatives for their input and the following comments and questions were raised:
· Issues facing smaller charities – in response to a question, Ms Halpern-Mathews commented that, on their own, it was difficult for smaller charities to bid for contracts but by working collaboratively they could bid for larger contracts or apply for grant funding. Regarding how smaller charities could better access resources, reach more people and provide a more modern service in fit for purpose premises, the Committee was advised that one answer might be to look at having community asset transfers or for contracts to have a social value element built into them to lever in funds. S.106 agreements were another opportunity to bring in funds for the sector. The VCS in Medway recognised there was no extra public money to be distributed and there was a need to think creatively. The Future High Street funds presented an opportunity to make venues available for communities and the VCS. Some councils had made space available for charities in their community centres.
· Procurement - reference was made to how the procurement process could sometimes disadvantage smaller charities. Where a contract was coming to an end key people might leave due to the uncertainty. That and the need to also work up new bids could lead to service users falling through the gaps. In addition, a new charity taking on the contract also had to spend time re-engaging with the previous provider. The point was made there could be too much emphasis on procurement and a shared public realm approach would work better. Ms Halpern-Mathews agreed that the procurement process could put services and people’s lives on hold. A Member asked if there was a legal requirement to re-procure or whether it would be possible to renew a contract if the outcomes had been delivered. The Chief Legal Officer advised the Procurement Strategy had been drawn up following consultation with the VCS. Significant savings had been made from how the Council procured as competition had increased and more bids were now received from the voluntary sector. He could look at stresses around the end of a contract and the start of a contract with a new provider. If the contract contained a provision for it to be extended then that would be legally possible but otherwise the contract would have to end.
· Greenspaces – a Member referred to the benefits which resulted from volunteering in this area, including giving people a sense of belonging, reducing anti-social behaviour, increasing levels of health and wellbeing and improving the local economy. Investing in volunteers was key.
· Volunteers – a Member referred to the financial returns which could be achieved from investing in volunteers and asked what the Council could do to help with this at minimal cost. Mr Morley highlighted how an investment in a volunteer co-ordinator had produced the equivalent of 4.5 FTE members of staff in volunteers. If the Council could help with this then the results would aggregate. Mrs Howard commented that a way forward would be to set up a Working Group to look at this and also have an agreement or compact between the Council and the VCS. Ms Halpern-Matthews commented that the Council could help by allowing volunteers to access training and also help with safeguarding checks. A Member commented that it appeared some people were not volunteering in case it affected their income from Universal Credit. Ms Halpern-Matthews was aware of one such case.
· Help for charities – a Member asked what plans the Council had in place if a charity was to close or be on the verge of closing. The Chief Finance Officer advised there was no emergency fund to help but where a charity had not been paid by the Council in a reasonable time he was happy to expedite this.
· Social prescribing – a Member referred to the increase in social prescribing where people were referred to charities but funding did not always follow. Mrs Howard commented social prescribing was a good way forward but some organisations could not engage due to a lack of funding, and this would cause major problems.
Going forward it was suggested that a cross party working group (including possibly representatives from the VCS) be established to take forward the suggestions made at the meeting, including a single officer point of contact for the VCS, using Medway Matters to raise awareness of the VCS and how to better use S.106 funds to help the sector. The Chief Legal Officer advised that the capacity of officers to support this work in the next few months would need to be looked at.
The Committee agreed, subject to officers identifying appropriate officer support, to set up a cross party working party to develop proposals relating to the voluntary and community sector in Medway (as outlined above) with a view to reporting to the Committee, possibly in January 2020.