Elizabeth Balgobin & Peter Lewis: A love letter to London, its community volunteers and its next Mayor

Elizabeth Balgobin & Peter Lewis: A love letter to London, its community volunteers and its next Mayor

Dear Future Mayor,

As you stand ready to pitch your woo to London we want to tell you how much we love the city: its muddle of streets full of history and modern surprises; its ever-changing skyline; its magnificent green spaces and scruffy pocket parks; its transport links to everywhere; its food, diversity, creativity and enterprise. There are lots of things wrong with it too: poverty, inequality, homelessness, crime (especially youth violence) and pollution. And, oh, how expensive it can be. But still we love it. And one of the reasons for that is London’s voluntary and community sector (VCS).

Take any London bus or cycle journey and you will pass evidence of the good work active communities, interested individuals, organised (and disorganised) volunteers and charity workers put into making London great, be they youth clubs, theatres, galleries, dance groups, orchestras, gardening projects, walking and fitness groups, projects supporting older people, homeless people, refugees, people with health problems, people wanting to learn new skills or find new jobs, or Saturday schools.

At these difficult times for London, still dealing with a decade of austerity, with Brexit, and high levels of poverty, we urge the next London Mayor to put London’s VCS at the heart of his or her thinking about how to make London a fairer and more sustainable city. Every London politician recognises the importance of the voluntary and community sector: as Westminster North MP Karen Buck MP once put it, they form “the fourth emergency service”. But few, if any, engage in ways that help to optimise its strengths.

This misses a trick. With a better relationship at every level between London’s government bodies and its VCS, much more can be achieved. Between us we have held a number of senior roles in London government and with London charities, both as staff and volunteers. Our experience informs the following three ideas for the next Mayor.

One: Take a truly strategic approach

Successive mayoralties have taken a piecemeal approach to working with London’s VCS, with its 20,000-plus charities and roughly 300,000 employees – about seven percent of the capital’s workforce. The nearest either of us has seen to a truly strategic approach has been what used to be called the London Skills and Employment Board, which both of us have been members of. Now called Skills for Londoners, it comprises a cross-section of London at a strategic level: business and borough leaders, trade union representatives and the VCS. It is responsible for bringing diverse thought, research and experience together to driving the complex process of delivering learning and workforce development.

We believe the next Mayor could usefully replicated this model at an even more strategic level, with a similar grouping of people thinking about the whole of the next Mayor’s agenda. This would replicate arrangements found in several other European countries, many of which have social and economic councils advising their governments. We suggest calling it the Mayor’s One London Board. Chaired by the Mayor twice a year, it would review key city data, suggest priority areas to be addressed and offer ways of working better together to deliver against agreed priorities. Embedding representation of London’s VCS at this level would add insight to these discussions

Two: Ensure the VCS is involved in the most top level thematic boards across the Mayor’s areas of responsibility.

The Mayor and the London Assembly have a wide range of areas of direct responsibility, as well as wider areas of influence. We believe the next Mayor should have a VCS representative on the top level board of every policy area. Similarly, in conducting its scrutiny responsibilities, the Assembly should always have appropriate VCS representatives heard as part of their deliberations.

At the moment, engagement at this level appears to be at the best ad hoc and at worst, non-existent. Just as it makes sense to have a union representative on the Transport for London board, surely it would make sense to have a member from London’s disability, inequality or sustainable transport charities. Just as you want the Youth Justice Board and local authorities to be represented on the London Crime Reduction Board, surely it would be valuable to have VCS representation from, for example, an organisation from communities most affected by violent crime?

We also suggest forming a new board with a view to stimulating philanthropy across the capital. London contains huge wealth disparities at a time when we can safely say that government money is unlikely to be flowing untapped into the capital. We believe the Mayor needs to take a strategic lead on this agenda, working in close collaboration with the Corporation of London, London’s trusts and foundations, business leaders and existing philanthropists to develop a truly strategic London-wide approach to stimulating philanthropy across the capital and helping the VCS to tackle some of London’s most stubborn issues.

Three: Policy backing for London-wide, local and specialist infrastructure organisations to support and represent the VCS.

The importance of infrastructure in technology or transport is always recognised: you need the cable capacity or the rail or road system. It is the same for the VCS. Infrastructure, in the form of support organisations, is vital to keeping the sector healthy. London is underserved by local VCS organisations compared with the rest of the country, particularly in the outer boroughs. Just as it is difficult to increase the numbers of people cycling to a station without an increase in dedicated cycle parking, you can’t grow the number and impact of local or specialist VCS groups without support from others.

This form of infrastructure has been decimated over the last 10 years as a result of the loss of the London Development Agency and the drastic reduction in grants from London Councils. The more recent introduction of the Roots fund for specialist infrastructure is small scale but welcome, especially as it recognises that the Mayor’s office cannot work alone. We believe a wider partnership is needed to support the Mayor’s strategies and programmes at a local and London-wide level.

We end with a question for those seeking to become the next Mayor. Do you love London enough to be explicit about your love for our sector? All relationships have their ups and downs, but love and trust has to be built, negotiated and declared. Whenever you talk about your vision for a fairer and more sustainable London, you need to be absolutely explicit that an energetic voluntary and community sector is at its heart if you are to create a truly fantastic One London.

Elizabeth Balgobin has led and volunteered with a string of London VCS organisations, worked with Hackney CVS, Laburnum Boat Club and Rich Mix and many others, addressing issues such as domestic abuse, the situations of refugees and housing and sustainability. Elizabeth tweets here. Peter Lewis is chief executive officer of the Institute of Fundraising and a member of the Centre For London board. He has previously run the London Cycling Campaign, worked in the Mayor’s office and volunteered for numerous organisations including Streetdoctors and Crisis. Peter tweets here. Their article is an edited version of a longer original, which can be read here.

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