Whilst stereotypes are often unhelpful and misleading, they are usually based to some extent on truth. The idea that local government tends towards bureaucratic tidiness has been disproven on many occasions, but nevertheless the need for Councils to exhibit good governance prevails. Equally the entrepreneurial expectation for small businesses and charities whilst well founded, can turn to dust in many cases. The suggestion that businesses are uncaring and charities lack efficiency are equally limited, but they do point to legitimate differences. Ideally all three of these sectors, and the hybrid social enterprise which brings together the profit making dimension of a business and good causes of a charity, will learn from one another. This learning is only possible where trust exists and all parties are willing to work together. If a business insists on all paying for a shared resource in a way that neither taxpayers or the beneficiaries of good causes could understand, then an impasse will exist. However in most contexts it is impossible for one of these three sectors to resolve any problems alone. All of us are interdependent on one another.
If we are to create jobs, provide good quality public services and support people in their context it is vital that we can understand the interaction between charities, local government and businesses. There should be no need for protectionism, and indeed if the trust has been established and is being strengthened on a daily basis we should be able to take risks together. Sometimes a focus on the way in which we usually operate can overpower the commitment to work together, leading to poor decisions and potentially a long term loss of trust with our partners. It seems unfair to suggest that Councils should be the most vigilant in this, because I have come across many shocking examples within businesses and charities. However Councils usually have greatest access to resources and are often the primary gatekeepers to the community assets. In recent days I have come across two specific examples of ways in which local government appears to have lost its way when it comes to working in partnership with businesses and charities. We are at a time when resources are being denied to Councils to deliver on local services at a scale few have ever experienced before. Yet Central Government is doing its best to pretend that things are not as bleak as they are in this regard. Under these circumstances, it is vital that our civic leaders focus action on partnership working even more intently. We cannot afford to lose goodwill and credibility amongst the three sectors!
I wrote a few days ago about an apparent failure by Brighton & Hove City Council to work with a local business in their discussions over the Pavilion Gardens a small, but very high profile park in which the business has been running the café for 73 years. Since then there has been a heated twitter debate, and Caroline Lucas, the MP has also expressed her concerns. I know that the Council Leader feels frustrated that the discussions which have been held with the business have not resolved the differences between them. It would be easy to assume that Councils which have limited resources, and are charged with significant responsibilities cannot afford to take the time that is needed to ensure that all interested parties have fully contributed and the best outcome for all is achieved. However this is a classic case of ensuring that the ship is not lost for a small amount of tar! The Pavilion Gardens are public assets which in this case need a private enterprise to ensure that visitors will have somewhere to sit and be refreshed whilst they enjoy the beauty of the park and its grand buildings. Another example is the failure of Bournemouth Borough Council to understand how charities work. This came to light when three charities which it manages failed to submit their annual accounts on time and were listed amongst 12 charities that had become of particular concern to the charity commission. These charities include one that runs the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum. An account of this story can be found here. Councils should not be running charities, and the failure here appears to be that the Council has moved some of their assets into a charity and failed to do so in a way that would allow potential Trustees to be found to run the new charities. These assets are not private assets, they are public assets, charities are often set up to manage public assets, but these charities should be run by members of the community, not by political parties or civil servants. If our communities are to thrive, we need to ensure that our Councils, our businesses and our charities are able to work together in the most effective way, not take short cuts that reduce the time and energy which partnership working demands and find we have knocked down community assets or lost credibility by failing to follow simple regulations, simply because they are not regulations we are familiar with!