A major 'big society' event took place last week at Parkfield in Paignton, jointly organised by CVA Torbay, Torbay's Community Partnerships and Torbay Council to look at ways to respond to and, in effect, to manage cuts which this month will be announced in the Mayor's draft budget.
Introducing the theme, A Force for Change, Simon Sherbersky, chairman of CVA's trustees, opened the session by talking about 'a sense of urgency' but while Alison Hernandez, lead member on Torbay Council, talked of tough times ahead, she nonetheless outlined some of the huge successes in the voluntary sector this year, from the Friends of Torbay Hospital to Brixham's Fishstock.
That said, Alison reminded us such successes were often to some degree dependent on public sector help and advice and, with cuts, that help and advice would necessarily diminish as resources became still more stretched. The question, then, was, how can the voluntary sector and the council continue to 'lead Torbay?'
A key notion began to emerge: with unemployment and child poverty figures high and with an ageing population, the need for a resilient and sustainable voluntary sector was, if anything, increasing, just at a time when public funding was decreasing. The status quo, it was clear, was not an option. A radical proposal was, as Alison explained, on the table, one that had its roots in the knowledge that 'working together for the future of the Bay' would mean strength in unity.
That proposal was for a Torbay Voluntary and Community Sector Co-operative, a Community Development Trust, which would enable, it was argued, the sector to develop, for example, a fundraising strategy and act as its combined voice.
Dave Hodgetts, representing Brixham Community Partnerships, went on to say cuts, while unavoidable in the economic circumstances, didn't mean there was 'no alternative' to cutting services and it was vital we all work together to 'ensure a future for the most vulnerable'. With that in mind, Simon returned to the concept of a CDT which would, as Alan Denby from the Torbay Development Agency affirmed, allow the sector to act more coherently and hence forcefully, for example in making demands of central government.
A question and answer session which followed gave rise to a variety of suggestions and queries regarding the structure of a CDT, its funding and even, from some, its purpose, but by the end of a long, stimulating conference, it was clear a way ahead was emerging. In the face of the new challenges we all have a role to play, developing momentum and acting as a catalyst for change, building social capital through social action, transforming public services and creating opportunities. Torbay needs to work with its communities as well as with the private and third sectors to identify opportunities to realise these ambitions and empower local communities to identify their priorities and, crucially, to manage risks.
On a personal note, and not from a CVA perspective, as a newcomer to the Bay and to the voluntary and community sector, I was both impressed and dismayed by what I witnessed: impressed by the turn-out and by the sense of urgent commitment to the community, to the disadvantaged and vulnerable, that clearly motivated so many in the room; dismayed, on the other hand, by the cynical and misinformed opinions of some who, ostrich-like, were dismissive of the need for change and suspicious of the motives of those who were arguing for it. One voice saddened me in particular, who asserted that cuts were, in spite of glaring evidence of the opposite, a good thing as they would stop people feeling that the state, or the council, or the voluntary sector, was there 'to save them the need to fend for themselves'.
On a lighter note, CVA, in partnership with the volunteering and mentoring service, Hand In Hand, are holding an 'Evening of Celebration' at the Grand Hotel in Torquay in December, in the presence of the Mayor.
The evening gives us a chance to acknowledge publicly just some of the amazing work which goes on across the Bay and that, as new challenges arise next year, will continue to go on, more vitally than ever.