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Help for bored civil servants: the case for a new Community Wealth Fund

Dan Gregory explains how a Community Wealth Fund backed by an alliance of 'social sector' organisations could support the communities who need it most

August 2018

"We know that money doesn’t grow on trees here in the civil society sector, the third sector or the VCSE sector. Sorry, actually, that’s the social sector as we’re called this week, thanks to the Government’s latest strategy for, confusingly, civil society.

Anyway, we know that money doesn’t grow on trees. Of course, it’s the other way around. We know very well that trees, plants and seedlings grow on stacks of coins in pictures we use on the front of reports about charity funding, social investment and access to finance. Indeed, the less money there is, the more reports with seedlings and stacks of coins we seem to produce. Because there doesn’t seem to be much money around. Councils are going bust, government debt is now at £1.8 trillion, household debt is bigger than ever, and no-one knows what will replace EU funding which has been so important to the, er, social sector.

Civil Society Strategy

Whilst the Office for Civil Society’s new strategy provides a welcome clarity to the Government’s vision for the social sector (it doesn't sound too bad when you keep saying it), what it didn’t do was throw up significant new money. This feels like a missed opportunity.

We know that within government and beyond, conversations have already started about how to make best use of the next wave of dormant assets – the billions of pounds of new money that could one day be released, currently lying unused in forgotten pension and insurance funds, and beyond. And it feels like there would be real value now – in the context of the debate about the strategy – to open up those conversations to wider participation.

"Now I think we have an even more compelling idea, more inclusive than social investment, and more meaningful for places that have been somewhat left behind."

I can understand why some in government might not find that prospect appealing. As a civil servant working a decade ago on the first wave of unclaimed assets – dormant bank and building society accounts that have largely been directed toward social investment – it was my job to follow and influence the debates about where this money should go. What I found frustrating then from inside government was when social sector leaders bemoaned how long it was taking for the money to be released, ignoring the inevitable lengthy process of working with the financial institutions, drafting and passing legislation, allowing time for forgotten assets to be reunited with their owners and so on. I imagine civil servants in OCS today are similarly bored of this, knowing full well it may take years and years before any money appears.

But what I think we can learn from that experience is the value of sector representatives coming together with a common voice to develop a compelling vision. Social investment as an idea was never really that enthusiastically embraced across the wider social sector but a few influential thinkers – and someone who was funding the Labour party at the time – worked together to sell the vision, and it stuck, with those in power.

Left behind places

Now I think we have an even more compelling idea, more inclusive than social investment, and more meaningful for places that have been somewhat left behind. In many places, civil society is fragile and held back from helping communities fulfil their potential. We need to nurture social capital in areas where it is weak or non-existent and help communities develop the capabilities needed to participate in their own development.

There is a remarkable consensus emerging about where money is really needed and how dormant assets could help. This is a case for an ambitious long-term endowment which could help those areas that have – to date – missed out on the proceeds of a growing economy. This idea could be understood as a sort of Sovereign Wealth Fund for communities - supporting the civic economy of areas that need it most. We know we must address the fragility of the institutions and spaces that enable participation and association, in turn rebuilding social capital. This fund would support a richer and more resilient civil society in areas which have struggled in the face of economic and social challenges.

"This is a case for an ambitious long-term endowment which could help those areas that have – to date – missed out on the proceeds of a growing economy."

The Government had previously stated that these new resources would allow our charities and voluntary groups to become more sustainable and independent. NCVO has said that the money should capitalise local charities to help establish their future sustainability, and enable charities and community groups to buy community assets such as sports pitches, parks, historic buildings or pubs. Locality have suggested that some of the money could be used to secure the future of vital community assets. The Civil Society Futures Inquiry points to the value and importance of putting resources into the hands of local communities and giving them decision making power to improve their areas.

Ministerial bunfight

It is a real shame the latest OCS strategy didn’t commit the government more strongly to this course. Because I fear a bunfight among future Ministers across government who may all have their own idea of what ‘good causes’ might mean. Last time around, social investment was up against financial inclusion and young people, and somehow won through. If the social sector (see I’ve got it now), is to stand a chance of making its voice heard again, it needs to forge a similar consensus, and work to make it a reality.

To that end, the Alliance for a Community Wealth Fund is publishing a summary of what feels an important emerging idea. It reflects the views of those consulted so far. But it is the start of a process and significantly more consultation and dialogue is needed. Our aspiration is, over the coming months, to further strengthen a broad alliance in support of these ideas. Much like the fund itself, we hope this it takes us forward, unites rather than divides, and empowers those who want to see local communities thrive."

Dan Gregory is an independent consultant and the author of Strong, resourceful communities: The case for a Community Wealth Fund supported by an alliance of major funders and voluntary sector organisations, including Local Trust.

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