Putting down new roots

For so long ignored by government bodies and larger charities,
community groups have at last been acknowledged by government as
part of its compact with the voluntary sector. Will it be the long
awaited leap forward, asks Patrick McCurry.

For many civil servants in both central and local government,
community groups have often been “off the radar” when it comes to
funding or consulting with them about social inclusion

There may be thousands of these small, grass roots
organisations, spread across every neighbourhood, but they have
long felt neglected by both the statutory sector and larger
charities. A situation often attributed to their small size and the
fact they are invariably staffed by volunteers.

But central government is becoming increasingly aware of the
strengths of community groups – particularly the strong roots they
have in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods – and is starting
to see them as a key tool in the effective delivery of its social
inclusion strategy. Within this context, the publication in July of
a draft compact code of practice for community groups1
is significant. The document flows from the original compact of
November 1998 between the government and voluntary sector.

Other smaller compacts, such as codes on funding or black and
minority ethnic organisations, have since been published. But many
in the voluntary sector believe the original compact and some of
the follow-up codes have not had a significant impact, largely
because of ignorance of the codes in the statutory sector. The
success of the community groups compact will depend in a large part
on how serious central government is in pushing the agenda of

The compact on community groups, which is now out for
consultation, was drawn up largely by representatives from
community organisations with input from Home Office civil servants,
and has yet to be finally approved by government. It presents a
framework of partnership between government and the community
sector, with undertakings on both sides. It aims to promote the
role of community groups and explains how, if government programmes
are to work, these groups must be involved and supported.

According to the compact it is in the interests of government
and all public bodies to strengthen the conditions and
relationships in which community groups can thrive. “Community
groups are a unique source of information about the communities in
which they work,” it states. “Through them, local authorities can
be closely in touch with the communities they serve.”

Citing the Social Services Inspectorate report Compact for Care,
the compact warns against a stereotyped view of the voluntary and
community sector as a few large umbrella organisations. The compact
adds: “These may be convenient entry points, but if used as short
cuts in place of engaging with community groups the outcomes can be

David Tyler, national director of Community Matters, which
supports community organisations, says the compact is long overdue:
“It could make an enormous difference for small non-profit
organisations that want to promote the needs of their communities
and continue to grow and innovate.” He particularly welcomes
proposals on simplifying funding for small groups and the call for
monitoring requirements not to be a barrier for community

Mike Sherriff, director of the Standing Conference for Community
Development, an organisation for community groups, says the compact
is essential because for too long community groups have been passed
over in favour of larger voluntary organisations when it comes to
consultation and funding.

“If the compact can improve community groups’ access to funds
and influence in consultation it will have succeeded,” says
Sherriff, a member of the committee that produced the code.

The code does not just call on the community sector and
statutory sector to build a better relationship, says Sherriff:
“But the voluntary sector, too, is asked to enter into dialogue
with community groups before speaking out on behalf of the sector,
and that is a crucial issue.”

There is clearly some resentment in the community sector towards
the perceived hegemony of larger charities in their relationships
with government and local authorities.

Roger Smith, general manager of ADEPT community development
agency in Coventry, says community groups must not be “dominated by
the institutional voluntary sector”, particularly by local councils
for voluntary service (CVSs). CVSs have been playing a dominant
role in government schemes such as local strategic partnerships or
regional voluntary and community sector forums, says Smith. But he
argues that too often the CVSs have not involved community

A spokesman for the National Association of Councils for
Voluntary Services acknowledges that the record of CVSs in
involving community groups varies, depending on the history in each
area. But he says CVSs have an important role in new structures
such as local strategic partnerships.

Ultimately, what effect the compact will have will depend on
whether it is taken seriously by government, local authorities and
health trusts, and how well known it becomes. “If these codes are
used they make a difference,” says one member of the compact group,
who asked not to be named. “One of the problems is the size and
diversity of both the voluntary and statutory sectors – if people
don’t know about them, they won’t work.”

But he says he was heartened by the enthusiastic reaction to the
compact on black and minority ethnic organisations and hopes this
can be repeated for the community groups code.

One factor favouring future take-up of the compact, he adds, is
the pressure from central government on local authorities to
deliver on their modernisation agenda. “Local councils are finding
that after years of talking about consultation with local
communities they’re actually being expected to do it and, to do it
effectively, they need to build their links with community

But could the compact really be a way of central government
“co-opting” the community sector into delivering the politicians’
agenda? This danger is acknowledged by some community group
representatives, including Tyler. He accepts that the closer
relationship between government and the voluntary and community
sector is a double-edged sword because, while it may increase
participation, it can also reduce the independence of

But he believes the compact is an important step forward in the
recognition of the community sector. “It focuses on the size and
diversity of the community sector and distinguishes it from the
voluntary sector, which is important. I believe it could provide an
effective framework for developing the sector and its relationship
with government.”

1 Working Group on Government Relations Secretariat,
Local Compact Guidelines:Getting Local Relations Right Together,
WGRS and Local Government Association, July, 2001 or from www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/main/gateway/compact.html#1

Key points in the compact

The consultation period on the code ends on 2 November. Details
can be found at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’
website, www.ncvo-vol.org.uk

Some of the government’s undertakings are:

– To unify and simplify small grants funding programmes for
community groups.

– To encourage the provision of resources to develop a community
sector infrastructure.

– To consider the transfer of assets to community-based
organisations to promote community enterprise.

– To recognise the independence of the community sector and the
imbalance in the relationship between it and government and to
resource partnership working, including joint public and community
sector training.

Some of the community sector’s undertakings

– To accept that funding may bring with it the need for
proportionate monitoring and evaluation.

– To involve users, in participation and control of the
organisation, wherever possible.

– To ensure that views are representative of the community the
organisation services.

Some of the voluntary sector’s undertakings

– To play an enabling role supporting the community sector.

– To consult with the community sector before responding to
invitations for representation on partnership bodies and other
local structures.

Sunnyclough community centre project

Barbara Bacon, secretary of the Sunnyclough community centre
project in Burnley, Lancashire, has first-hand experience of the
difficulties community groups face in getting projects started.

The group, which is a membership organisation of local community
groups, is supporting projects such as a learning activity centre
for children on one of the town’s most deprived estates, and a day
centre for elderly residents in the area.

There are about 85 active community groups in Burnley, but many
have been disappointed when they’ve failed to get projects up and
running, she says: “Often the problem is lack of voluntary sector
expertise, lack of access to funds or not knowing what’s possible
and how it can be achieved.”

Bacon, a member of the committee that produced the code, says it
will help groups like hers. “It tells people in the community
sector, government and the voluntary sector what’s expected of them
and community groups can get a clearer idea of what they can
achieve and where they can go for help.

“If you want community groups to move forward and have more
ownership of community development they need guidelines and that’s
where the compact could be effective.”

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