By Ben Johnson, Business Development Manager, Children’s Links

When it was elected last year, the new Government set out and began to establish a long-term agenda to facilitate economic and social reform across England, that being devolution. In essence, the idea of devolution is a simple one; devolve power from central to localized governments, where local knowledge, strong community links and relationships and vibrant local democracy can marry to enhance national economic and social prosperity. However, is it this straightforward, is it as simple as an amalgamation of growth plans, priorities and the provision and redesign of health and well-being offers?

At face value, it could be construed that, yes, perhaps it is; however, when one begins to dig a little deeper a far more complex web emerges; one which sees new area borders and boundaries and local authority partnerships, with those in turn leading to the inclusion of new territories and a substantial reconfiguration of local power bases - with more agencies around the table focused on protecting both their specialisms and their place within the construct. Devolution will undoubtedly impact across all sectors, in a variety of ways, but just how is it likely to impact upon the voluntary and community sector?

An immediate challenge the sector will certainly face is that of building and establishing positive working relationships with a variety of new agencies, businesses and players, covering a wide range of sectors themselves, who may not have been present (or, at least, not been present in quite the same guise) previously. For voluntary and community organisations that rely on close working relationships with familiar and consistent agencies, this does present a very real, and in no way inconsequential, challenge. We have previously seen an agenda not dissimilar to devolution; when Children’s Trusts were introduced we saw similar partnership ideals developed. However, previously the focus was limited to partnerships based on shared specialisms, not on the community as a whole which is what we are seeing with devolution. Now the expectation is that partnerships will incorporate logistics, health, education, skills and development etc…. no small order!

So how does the voluntary and community sector engage? For those of us in the picture that have managed to retain and maintain a network of voluntary sector providers there is opportunity to both enhance these pre-existing relationships and indeed share information with a wider range of organisations who are perhaps not as well positioned. However, what remains as a far more crucial question, as far as the voluntary and community sector at least is concerned, is how high a priority is the drive to include the sector going to be in design and execution when devolution plans begin to be executed?

Devolution aims to bring power as close to communities and their people as possible, by reaffirming and developing the powers of local, elected governments to design public services that meet local needs. This leans a little towards the idea of a ‘champion’, or a Major type role. The extent to which the voluntary and community sector will be involved in individual local government plans will likely depend on numerous factors. In rural communities direct logistical concerns dictated by travel requirements and the cost incurred in reaching out to sparsely populated communities will undoubtedly affect the reaches of funding streams and contracts will almost be certainly impacted by this. Additionally the extent to which the local government wishes to devolve will be key; can one individual represent the masses and what will their house need to contain to be effective across a wide geographical base with multiple borders and multiple priorities?

There are a number of voluntary and community sector organisations, such as our own, that are also based in rural areas. Devolution can justifiably point to urban areas such as Manchester and champion the current successes displayed there as a result of devolution - however, it’s not unfair to suggest that the concentrated strength in numbers of an urban area such as this contributes hugely to its success. In rural counties such as Lincolnshire, Cumbria, Cornwall, North Yorkshire etc. this certainly isn’t the case and the impact of factors such as the sparse and geographically spread populations of areas like these will impact devolution plans. It remains to be seen to precisely what extent.

What is certain, though, is that where single agencies and organisations are responsible for the delivery of multiple, or indeed all, aspects of a service, this is easier to facilitate in concentrated, densely populated areas. The logistics of devolution within rural settings is likely, at the very least, to make it look decidedly different from its urban counterpart.

There are certainly advantages and numerous positive elements to the concept of devolution. One can look at urban success stories like Manchester and see very clearly how its application can produce the positive outcomes intended for local communities. However, there remain uncertainties and unanswered questions that must be addressed before the bigger picture of devolution becomes clear. What the future holds for the voluntary and community sector, and indeed rural communities, within the context of devolution remains to be seen. No doubt there is room for the concept, but perhaps with a slightly different look and feel from that of its urban counterpart.