What we do now know is that there will be further devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. What will be the implications for civil society?
Look back first to the Localism Act debates in 2010-11, when the government introduced more power for localities. David Cameron was clear that the Government were giving more powers to local councils, and that in return they expected those councils to give more power to citizens and communities. Hence the establishment of a community 'right to challenge’ the current delivery model of public services, and the right to acquire community assets, among other powers that were opened up to community groups and charities.
The challenge in designing all these new rights is to find institutional structures that can make them a reality. The 84% turnout in the referendum shows that communities throughout the country will rise up and engage with political issues when the issues matter and when people have meaningful power. But what is essential is that the full potential of existing charities, community groups and social enterprises is used to give a structure to new community rights of challenge and ownership. The risk otherwise is that knee-jerk ‘devolution’ ends up, as I said earlier this year, ‘replacing public sector monopolies with private sector oligopolies’.
That means that the new Devolution Commission, announced by the Prime Minister from Downing Street this morning, must hear from existing civil society institutions. Charities and voluntary groups need a voice at the table so that new devolved powers don’t just entrench the role of the State at a local level but truly expand the potential of citizens to associate through civil society groups, in communities both of place and of interest.
Our existing public services increasingly face the challenges of demographic change and increasingly complex needs. Change is needed and charities, community groups and social enterprises can help by expanding their delivery while combining it with our unique role as advocate for our beneficiaries.
As the details of Lord Smith’s Commission begin to take shape I hope this important ingredient is included in the mix.
Lord Smith, William Hague and everyone else: you need us.