Chris Hook, associate solicitor at Hempsons, asks whether it is time for volunteers to play a greater role in public services.

At the turn of the year Sir Stuart Etherington, the longstanding CEO of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), sent an open letter to NCVO’s members and the wider sector calling for volunteers to play a greater role in public services.

Sir Stuart cited health and social care as two areas facing enormous pressure. “Social care is consuming an ever greater proportion of local government spending. The trajectory appears unsustainable.” Similarly, the Red Cross recently went so far as to say the NHS was facing a “humanitarian crisis”.

Whoever becomes the next Government, given the economic climate, what is to be done in the area of social care and other public services?

Greater involvement of volunteers

While Sir Stuart acknowledged that volunteers alone cannot plug the gaps which are emerging, he argued that greater use of volunteers had to be part of the solution: “We need volunteers at the front door to reduce demand and help keep people out of hospital, and volunteers at the back door to help those who needed hospital treatment to settle back in at home. On both ends this is not about delivering more but using the capacity of communities to help meet and even reduce demand.” Enabling communities to be better neighbours and look out for each other is surely a good thing, after all.

But, seeking to open up a debate, Sir Stuart did not stop there: “I don’t believe in putting limits on what volunteers can do, especially not based on ideological arguments about the role of the state.” On the one hand, it is useful to move on from the old paradigm of “public sector equals good, private sector equals bad”. But can we dispense with politics altogether? After all, some might argue that government decisions to cut public spending and spin out public services may reflect an ideological desire to reduce the size of the state.

Local variations in service quality

There is also a wider question about whether it is socially equitable that the extent and quality of our public services may depend on the willingness of local communities to band together?

For instance, the New Local Government Network report Realising Community Wealth suggested that there is a correlation between volunteering rates and deprivation. This means that more affluent areas are likely to be better placed to sustain volunteering and better volunteer-led services because they already have higher levels of social interaction and engagement. On this basis deprived areas, which may already face more acute difficulties, would be even less well equipped to deal with them.

Asset transfers

The growth of volunteer-run libraries (often known as “community libraries”) is perhaps an interesting example of what Sir Stuart was talking about. Transferring control from local authorities has no doubt saved these important civic institutions from closure for the benefit of hundreds of local communities across the country. However, in many cases the professional expertise of trained librarians and archivists has been lost; local authorities have further cut their book funds limiting the replenishment of stock; opening hours have reduced; the joined-up area-wide library service has fragmented; and, of course, jobs have been lost.   

Meanwhile the Communities and Local Government Committee recently published a wide-ranging report into the future of England’s parks, including a discussion on setting up park trusts or formal partnerships with friends groups to take over the management of parks. Newcastle City Council is one such local authority exploring how to set up a charitable trust to take over the management of its parks, including those gifted to the city by philanthropists.

The Committee's report noted that a key issue is the establishment of transparent governance and accountability structures, particularly because changes to the traditional park management model can weaken a community's ability to hold local authorities to account through the ballot box. It is therefore important that careful thought is given to establishing governance arrangements which provide appropriate oversight and involvement in decision-making for local people.

That said, the Committee also heard evidence that setting up a park trust could in fact enhance local democracy and accountability. Alan Carter of the Land Trust said: "it is really crucially important to get the local community involved in making the decisions and having what I call the soft ownership: 'It feels like it is mine; legally and technically it might not be, but it feels like it may be mine'. [The local community] make the decisions about what that green space is used for and what benefits really come from that green space."

Likewise, David Foster, Chief Executive of the Milton Keynes Parks Trust, said: "The real benefit of having a trust is not so much about the funding; it is about setting the parks free and [setting] the people who run the parks ... free to be innovative and creative. [ … ] an independent trust that has nothing else to do but promote the parks, get them well managed and bring the money in to manage them, with a single purpose, is much more likely to succeed in making them work."

But the report also notes the liabilities and legal complexities which community groups may face on an asset transfer. The voluntary sector therefore needs to be wary of Greeks bearing gifts and, furthermore, be sure that its enthusiasm for taking on or saving community assets is not misused by public authorities as a Trojan horse for spending cuts and job losses. Otherwise this may serve to undermine public confidence in volunteerism and the sector more widely.

Benefits of volunteering

Nonetheless, Sir Stuart was right to be positive and stress the benefits of volunteering i.e. it provides social and health benefits and development opportunities for individuals as well as strengthening community bonds and building collective capacity.

But such benefits do not come only from delivering public services. Individuals and community groups can derive these same benefits through different forms of volunteering e.g. community activism or local campaigning against proposals to close a service. It is important that charities continue to defend their right to engage in legitimate political activity and campaigning as well as looking to harness their expertise in mission-focused delivery. This is particularly relevant as we approach the local elections and the general election.

Fostering effective volunteering

Despite the differences of opinion about the role of volunteers in public sector delivery, there are also a number of points where all sides can hopefully agree. For example, volunteering comes with a cost. It takes time, effort and resources to make a good volunteer. Voluntary does not mean free. Government needs to understand this.

It is also only fair that community groups have access to legal advice from the start to understand what they are taking on and ongoing support in relation to funding, training, business planning, compliance and so on.

In addition, it is important that charities properly induct and support volunteers so that they are effective and get the most out of the experience. For this reason it is good practice for organisations to develop non-binding volunteer agreements which set out the parties’ shared expectations.

The recent DCMS report Enabling Social Action is also a useful guide on how to foster different types of volunteering in different contexts.

Fundamentally, this debate is more complex than a simple question of state funding versus volunteer-involvement, as if it had to be one or the other. Rather, the real question has to be about where and how the state and volunteers can best work together to sustain and enhance our public services.

Sir Stuart said he wanted to start a debate. As the elections approach, the debate continues…

Chris Hook is an associate solicitor at Hempsons in Newcastle. He provides specialist legal advice to charities and social enterprises on a wide range of charity and commercial law matters.


Chris Hook

Associate solicitor specialising in charity and social enterprise

Hempsons | Newcastle

d: 0191 230 6052 e: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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