Feb/March 2011 Profile: Campbell_Robb

From NCVO to the first director general of the Office of Third Sector, Campbell Robb has left a lasting legacy on the sector. Now as chief executive of Shelter he faces his biggest challenge. Andrew Holt found out what he plans next

Much debate has surrounded the nature of the Big Society, what it means, its intellectual foundation and tradition, but Shelter CEO Campbell Robb approaches the subject in a more pragmatic way. “I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at big papers focusing on the Big Society,” he confesses.

“From my perspective there is a big and interesting challenge: how we deliver a lot of frontline services to some of the most vulnerable people in society.” This typifies Robb’s gritty pragmatic realism that has seem him influence many facet of the sector.

From director of public policy at the NCVO, he then became a sector champion within government as director general of the newly created Office of Third Sector. That legacy lives on today.

He says of those days: “When I started at NCVO [in 1998], the key objective was to create a sector unit right at the heart of government, with its own minister and decent resource to deliver positive change for charities. The other aim was this to be supported on a cross-party basis.”

Both have been achieved and survived through three Prime Ministers: Blair who set the OTS up, Brown who put money into it and into the Cabinet Office and Cameron, who has kept it in the Cabinet Office. “The legacy of that work, and it is not just my work, is that we now have that high level of political and financial support. What we have is that driving force within government. That has got to be good for the sector.”

Even the change in name to the Office for Civil Society does not wane his enthusiasm and again his realism emerges. “The name is irrelevant. What it does is important, championing the sector in Government, pushing for change, making the big departments think about the sector; those things are important.”

Though having won that position, the sector, and in particularly Robb’s charity Shelter, the housing and homeless charity, finds itself in the toughest circumstances for generations. Again Robb is realistic about what Shelter faces.

“We are facing an unprecedented level of cuts to our public sector funding. Legal Aid for example, where we get a lot money from the Legal Services Commission, to support people being evicted, allows us to help a lot of people, and any cut in that lessens any capacity to help.”

Less resources
Mixed with his realism, is his obvious passionate commitment to the sector, highlighted by his past record, and now applied to his charity’s mission,
evident by his view on facing the harsher financial
reality head-on.

“There will be less public funding to do the types of work we do. But we believe we shouldn’t be battening down the hatches. This is not a time for Shelter to say: ‘we just need to survive’, it is not what we are here for.We want to help more people.Even if we have less resources. That is the challenge we face: doing more with less.”

To put the present challenges in context, Robb recently met with Des Wilson, the 1966 founding director of Shelter, who gave him an interesting comment on the current environment. “Des thinks there has never been a more profound need for Shelter than now, even more than when he started. It is a different challenge, as the scale of change and the challenge is more profound. There is a whole range of people in need of housing and housing issues. It is not just the sharper end of society.”

This was highlighted by Shelter research last year showing more than two million people have used their credit cards to pay their mortgage or rent, an increase of almost 50 percent on the previous year.

A number of factors beyond the economic environment are also contributing to this parlous situation. “There is an accumulative effect: the reform of Legal Aid, reforming housing benefit, reforming social tenancies, the health service reforms, add all those together and the combination on us as a provider and our clients is absolutely enormous. There is no way of predicting what the outcome client services will be.”

The decisions Shelter are having to make are therefore huge and raise questions about Shelter’s ability to deliver its work. Robb asks: “Can we afford to stay in an area where there is no statutory funding? Of which we know there will be need, and ultimately and paradoxically, there may be more statutory funding because the government will have to do something about
it, ultimately.”

Hard decisions
And the situation is likely to become worse before it becomes better. “I think next year is going to be even more challenging. All the different impacts of those [above] reforms will come into place. Even if the economy picks up the social lag is always much longer. It is a very challenging picture for people we support.”

Furthermore, Robb notes there are two things happening and they are not running in parallel. “There are the government’s cuts agenda, which is running now, and there is the government policy agenda, including Big Society which will take longer to come into effect.”

The problem for Shelter, as with many other charities, is the gap in-between. “We are making hard decisions about services we can deliver now, but Big Society and other reforms will come into force 12 or 18 months time and have fantastic opportunities for us; it’s how we keep providing those services to the most vulnerable in the interim.”

Also, like other charities, Shelter are currently in the middle of budgeting setting for the next financial year, which again brings with it new challenges. “Every day we are trying to create a bottom line, and in the current environment it is almost impossible, because every day you are hearing from another council or another statutory funder on what their funding is going to be.”

Could the government have communicated the cuts better, or earlier? “It is not just the communication of the cuts, it is the scale and speed by which the government is reforming so many parts of the public sector,” Robb observes.

£6bn was cut from the previous government’s housing capital investment; the biggest single losing area in government. The government stated the reform of social housing was the biggest reform since the creation of the welfare state.

“That is a profound level of change.” Moreover, the front-loading of cuts is a wide cause of concern. “The Front-loading is a big issue. It is a real danger.”

Robb’s pragmatism again emerges when he highlights his relationship with the coalition government. “We have a very good relationship with the housing team. The housing minister [Grant Shapps] is very passionate about housing. Of course we do not agree with everything he is doing, but our relationship is very good.”

So put all together, what is Robb’s biggest challenge of all the mammoth challenges he faces? “Being able to ensure we continue to provide a safety net for people with housing need. That is the biggest challenge. Despite everything that is swilling around us, keeping our organisation focused on how it can help more people is the challenge.

“Plus, we have been, I hope, a productive critic on the government’s housing benefit reforms, we are not just saying ‘no’, we are saying yes reform, but do it in a different way, while constantly delivering our service.” And he admits, the thing he has learnt is that it is all about people. “It is not about systems or finance; what we are doing is having an impact on people’s lives.”

Given the passionate imprint he has left on the sector thus far, it is likely that Shelter will benefit greatly in both the short and longer from having Campbell Robb at the helm.

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