Last night BBC North broadcast a debate about the impact of public sector cuts on the North East. I was pleased to be in the invited audience to point out that local authorities must be mindful to make cuts which will not result in them spending more money in the long run (see my blog 5th August).
Although people were worried about the potential scale of the cuts there was general agreement that the country cannot afford the present level of public expenditure. Our region has the highest percentage of public sector employees but as was pointed out, that isn't because the public sector is too big but because the private sector is too small compared to other regions. That is why abolishing One North East, the Regional Development Agency makes little sense at just the point when its investment in the low carbon industries of the future is beginning to bear fruit in electric cars and sustainable energy generation from wind and waves.
The tone of the programme was gloomy. We have a tendancy in the North East to blame central government for our troubles. Ed Cox, Director of ippr north (Institute of Public Policy Research) tried valiantly to move the discussion away from blaming others to taking responsbility for ourselves - to 'lead not plead' but without success. Currently the voluntary sector is particularly prone to pleading for public funds. Yet not so long ago it was voluntary organisations that were valued for their innovation and courage. The voluntary sector has become too reliant on public money in the form of grants or contracts which inevitably means doing what other people ask us to do rather than take the initiative ourselves.
There is no doubt that the voluntary sector will be hit hard by cuts when they come. As Children North East has already found, local authorities will always chose to cut money for other organisations before they cut their own services and staff. Rather than moaning, blaming, doing nothing or simply hoping for the best now is the moment for voluntary organisations to take the lead. Instead of looking to the public sector to know what is best and give us the money to do it, we should use our collective knowledge of the needs of the most vulnerable members of society to commission the services needed ourselves. Larger charities and 'umbrella' organisations like VONNE and CVS bodies are well placed to take on this strategic commissioning role convening coalitions of smaller organisations to develop and deliver solutions. They also have the relationships and authority to negotiate with public bodies, grant makers like charitable trusts and philanthropic investors. We often forget that in a time of cuts in public expenditure the voluntary sector can bring extra cash to the table by accessing funding that is not available to public bodies.