Voluntary and community organisations, trade unions, housing associations, social enterprises, and co-operatives have formed a Third Sector Network to share ideas and experience and work together on issues of common concern. The Network brings together umbrella organisations such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, National Housing Federation, Social Enterprise Coalition, Trade Union Congress, and Volunteering England. The new broad alliance will strengthen the voice of its members and will have a growing influence on public opinion and Westminster.Historically charities and co-operatives have developed along quite separate paths. This network recognises what they in have common and provides an opportunity to raise the profile of the third sector and its value to society and to the economy.
The first challenge for the Network and the first opportunity for it to flex its muscle will come in July when it prepares a joint submission to the Treasury’s consultation on the Comprehensive Spending Review. The Review will decide what money is allocated to every Government Department from 2008 – 2011 and the consultation is the largest the Treasury has ever held with the third sector.
The new Network also faces a challenge in responding to plans for double devolution, where power is to be moved from Whitehall to town hall and then on to communities and individuals. David Miliband, the former Minister of Communities and Local Government, made it clear there was a role for the voluntary and community sector to contribute to the proposed changes in partnership with the public sector.
David Miliband urged councils to develop their vision for their area through their Sustainable Community Strategies and to be open to the views and perspectives of third sector organisations. He recognized that sometimes this will involve frank exchanges and disagreements. Councils will be expected to use citizens and outside expertise as part of the process of making decisions, so that decisions are based on an independent and user-centred view of Best Value. When decisions have been taken there should be transparency over the level of funding that goes to private and voluntary sector providers so that councils and their partners can benchmark their performance.