BLOG: Why the third sector needs to be prepared for the mayoral elections in May

We are just four weeks away from the voting for 10 new directly-elected mayors across the English regions, and I am still amazed at the number of colleagues in the third sector who don’t understand how it will affect them. For that reason, few seem to have contributed to the debate about what powers the new mayors should have, and even fewer have tried to shape the political priorities of the candidates. There is a general indifference to the whole devolution agenda. This seems to me to be a mistake.

Devolution has revolutionised the relationship between government and the third sector in Scotland, Wales and London. It is re-shaping the voluntary sector itself in those places, sometimes in dramatic ways. There is no reason to doubt that it has the potential to do the same here in the English regions too.

So why are third sector leaders so apathetic? The answer comes partly from the nature of the sector’s relationships with existing local government institutions. The reality is that many of the local authorities who have come together to form combined authorities across the country only agreed to the appointment of a mayor under duress.

The then-chancellor, George Osborne, promised significant additional investment, but only if council leaders agreed to a directly-elected mayor. Those invested in existing local government institutions therefore, are working to ensure that the new mayors make minimal difference to the status quo. The mayors are simply being tolerated in order to release money. Their expectation is that the mayor will go down to London, pick up the cheque, bring it back – and then give it to them to spend as they see fit. So the message that many councillors and officers are giving out to their third sector partners is the mayor is simply window-dressing who will be quietly side-lined and contained by local council leaders once the money has been released.

With that kind of message being subtly given out (and sometimes not so subtly), is it any wonder third sector leaders can’t see what the fuss is about?

Meanwhile the message coming from Westminster and Whitehall is that mayors are part of a devolution settlement that will see powers transferred from central government to the new city-region government. There is lots of talk of large-scale ‘infrastructure investment’ and ‘private sector jobs growth’ but it might not be immediately apparent to those of us running charities and community interest companies that any of this has anything to do with us. Those aren’t the kinds of things that we do.

This however ignores two main facts. Firstly, whilst the third sector might not be involved in building HS2 and 3, or opening new factories, many of us do engage in activities that will be preparing people to be able to seize the opportunities that these projects will create. We engage in job preparation training, in teaching people life skills, in helping those overcome addictions or mental health problems. We offer support to people with disabilities to help them re-enter the workplace, and we work alongside young people who may have taken a wrong turn in life. In short, we do a lot of the things that the mayors will need to have done if the people living in our most deprived communities are to benefit. To their credit, many of the mayoral candidates have said that these are precisely the people they want to deliver devolution for. The third sector therefore needs to recognise that our work will be of benefit to the mayors – and that the devolved powers the mayors have will be of benefit to us.

There is a second point however, that no-one is talking about. The experience of Scotland, Wales and London has been that devolution has not been an exercise in de-centralising; it has been an exercise in the moving where the centre is. Yes, devolution has involved powers going down the chain of command from central government to devolved administrations. But it has also been an exercise in powers being sucked up the chain of command from local government too.

My Scottish relatives talk about Holyrood in much the same terms as Nicola Sturgeon talks about Westminster – as a place distant from them which has made their local council seem much more peripheral. As devolved administrations take power from Westminster and from local town halls, the centre has shifted to Holyrood, the Welsh Assembly, and City Hall.

The reality is that local councils in London found that they could not stop the juggernaut of the London mayor from smashing up the status quo. To quote just one example, rough sleeping in London is now dealt with on a citywide basis. Instead of 26 local authorities all having their own rough-sleeper provision, there are now three homeless hubs in London that provide services to citizens of the whole city. In these days of austerity, it is far more efficient for councils to address the problem that way. So they pool resources. And it has worked – rough sleeping in London remained broadly flat last year whilst across the rest of the country it increased by an average of 12 per cent (and 55 per cent in Birmingham). The point is, these homeless hubs might be paid for by local councils, but they are commissioned by the mayor. It is the only system that makes sense.

The pressures on council budgets will drive similar arrangements across the city-regions. And that means existing relationships that third sector organisations have with local authorities may no longer be as important as they once were. The YMCA’s experience in London has been that the mayor wants pan-London solutions to problems, and won’t engage with third sector organisations that can’t deliver them. The result has seen a dramatic decline in the number of YMCAs operating in London and greater collaborative working between the few that remain. They don’t see a long-term future in locally-based operations. The Mayor isn’t interested. If they want to be in a position to help solve the problems they were set up to solve, they have to be thinking in terms of the whole of London, not just a bit of it.

Notwithstanding the wishes of the political dinosaurs at local authority level, all the evidence points towards mayors becoming the new centres of power in the English regions. Third sector organisations need to prepare for that reality if they want to survive.

Alan Fraser is CEO of YMCA Birmingham

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