Community Action Suffolk

CommunityActionSuffolk_VerySmallThe voluntary sector has become increasingly significant. The government wants to save money so they are encouraging volunteering. That doesn’t mean there is much money about; state handouts are harder to obtain, and there’s little sign that the obstacles caused by administration are being reduced, as promised.

I need to declare an interest. For some years I was a trustee/director of the Suffolk Association of Voluntary Organisations (SAVO). It was a worthwhile infrastructure organisation designed to serve the 5,000 (as identified at that time) voluntary groups in Suffolk. Everyone worked hard, although far too much time and energy was spent raising funds to keep SAVO itself going.

SAVO trustees identified some 16 different organisations providing infrastructure support in the county. There was a clear need for change, and with others I cajoled government, trustees and senior managers into considering amalgamation. Luckily that initiative coincided with the government’s plan to support voluntary groups, and so funds became available to engineer change.

Yesterday saw the public launch of Community Action Suffolk:, let’s call it CAS, which is designed to replace the previous hotchpotch of support.

This was the first of several launch events planned across the county, and Felixstowe buzzed as those interested in community organisations gathered at the Community Hub in the grounds of the Orwell site of the Academy.

Voluntary organisations need funds, volunteers, training, advice and a range of services, and to network with other organisations. These are all areas in which this fledgling organisation plans to work. They are not really a start-up as most, if not all, of their staff came from the existing groups. Even so it is early days as they create a workable structure.

There are many tasks to complete, their mission statement points to their vision; suggesting that Suffolk communities are stimulated, empowered and strengthened through an effective and sustainable voluntary and community sector. A mission to strengthen and champion community action in Suffolk by supporting the voluntary and community sector in its work with values that focus on collaboration, excellence, resilience, equality, accountability and transparency.

Starting and then running a small voluntary group can be daunting. You want to help, to serve and have a desire, a vision, to help your community. Immediately it can seem that barriers are placed in your way. Issues that reach beyond your campaign; governance, finance, ensuring that your message is heard, training, finding volunteers are all areas that need expertise, which you may not have.

We’ve seen many changes in our society. Third-party organisations are now being recruited to provide a range of services. The law of contract, which company structure to adopt, how to manage staff, including volunteers, all become issues if your group is to play its part in this new world. There’s now more need to publicise work undertaken. Now we have social enterprises, many of which have become major players, playing their part. This brings a political perspective that should probably become a major task for CAS, as an infrastructure provider. They will need to get involved with seeking funds, creating teams that can work together, providing help to apply for contracts, and then maintaining the businesses that are created.

It’s a tough world that CAS is entering. It will have to react quickly, to represent their members in many ways, and to ease charity and community groups into a rapidly changing environment.

Hopefully they will be able to provide the support that is clearly needed. They will need help themselves, and should be prepared to widen their perspectives, to appreciate that expertise is available and can be accessed, but that traditional methods are no longer appropriate. The edges between state provision, charitable support and commerce are now very blurred.

Eels Foot Inn

Eels Foot InnFancy choosing to leave home on a Bank Holiday. I’m glad I did as I went to Eels Foot Inn at Eastbridge, not far from Leiston and Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

It was a lovely day, and although traffic on the A12 was heavy, it was moving. Using satnav to East Bridge, IP16 4SN soon we were in single-track lanes, with grass growing through the tarmac along the centre. Dappled sunlight broke through the trees, and travelling quietly, we were in an hybrid Lexus, so at low speed there was no engine noise. Bliss.

Eastbridge is a lovely hamlet, with little more than the Eels Foot Inn at its centre. As we turned the last corner to find the pub the atmosphere changed. There was the Inn, small, with a row of tables in front. The car park is at one side of the building. We pulled in to find two petanque courts, with teams playing. The car park was packed with cars (what else?), so we drove around to the rear field – that was even more packed. As we searched for a place we could see many more people, a busy barbecue and signs that a band was about to start playing.

We had stumbled open the Second Eel Foot Petanque Championship. A van, set up to sell petanque equipment, had come from Wales! Lovely atmosphere. Lovely people.

The pub staff should have been flustered and overwhelmed, but they were courteous, even laughing at my feeble jokes, and very efficient. We chose baked crab (how often do you see that on a pub menu) and a lamb-burger. Both were excellent, served with a really tasty salad (and that’s extremely unusual anywhere).

I’ll go no further, except to say the menu was both extensive and attractive. The tenants of this pub deserve to succeed. If you want to impress take someone here. The petanque teams will have gone but there’s the chance to stay in the luxury bed and breakfast, or park your caravan in the adjoining field.

After lunch we went for a walk, making the short drive to Dunwich, and I suggest you do find the church because close by there’s a good garden nursery, with well-cared-for plants, that also has a cafe with cakes, one of which now fits comfortably around my waist. Sitting in the sun, in the garden, with a big pot of tea, was tranquil and glorious. OK, the walk – that was towards Minsmere walking through the heather, in full flower. No web site just for the nursery – but,+Dunwich

A wonderful day.

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Local Authority Contracting

With money arriving at Local Economic Partnerships now is the time to get a real grip on the tendering for local authority contracts. A major obstacle for small companies, and social enterprises, is the tender application process which is often far too complicated. There’s been much discussion about simplification but nothing much has happened.

The LEPs could make a useful contribution by liaising with LAs in their area to create a recognised process, to register likely contractors, and to ensure that the basic bones of company structure are in place. Too often hard-working companies are put off from applying because they have to produce, yet again, health and safety documents, work practices, insurance certificates, certificates of incorporation, lists of directors, details of previous contracts (what if there aren’t any?), referees, bank statements, professional contracts: lawyers, accountants, advisors. There’s often much more before the work for that contract can be tackled.

A considerable problem is that the contract itself may be poorly constructed, it may not appreciate all the elements to be considered, it may impose unreasonable limitations. The process of selection suitable contractors is too often clouded in the secrecy of commercial privacy, in itself an encouragement to corruption. Once awarded it the requires that the Council monitors and supervises the work.

Beyond that I’d suggest we need Councils to find out how their local populace would like their money to be spent. Too often we see Council departments rushing to spend all their fund allocations towards the end of the financial year, often resulting in badly-planned, frequently irrelevant schemes.

Introduction to Rural Strategy

In Suffolk and Norfolk we have New Anglia Local Economic Partnership:, something of a contraction from the traditional region of East Anglia which includes Essex and Cambridgeshire.

This LEP now has £12 million to be used to encourage business growth in the area. What shall be done? The danger is that administrators will impose stringent restrictions that will deter small, emerging companies, and instead the money will be gobbled up by larger companies – who are often lethargic, even moribund, and will not produce what is required. To that we could attract EU funding.

There have been attempts to ask local companies what they suggest. The response has been, shall we say, theoretical, certainly it’s been posible to identify what lies behind many of the suggestions.

We now need to expand our mental horizons – and, at the same time, start to look at individual ideas and projects in more detail.

I’ll make a suggestions: we have, and at least one competitor, and there are business directories of various sorts. In Suffolk a different approach has been taken, possibly with less impact.

Could we begin to create a business directory for New Anglia – not just to list the companies but also to sell their produce or services? A great start has been made with and should be expanded, worked in a different way – this is not the place to identify specific projects – but to ask if a small part of that £12 million should be used to build online resources.