40 Years on: What is different and why do we need ARVAC

Anniversaries of any kind give us the opportunity topause – look back (perhaps) and reflect. 2018 has marked the 40thbirthday of ARVAC. And it is interesting to look back and think about what haschanged and what has remained the same . On one level many things have changedbut there are moments of similarity : the Conservative Party in 1978 had awomen leader who many thought would lose the next election; the governing partyhad no overall majority in Parliament and were relying on the smaller parties(this time the Liberals) to keep them in office; the question of devolution andthe rights of the constituent parts of the UK were seen as crucial and , in thecall for the  subsequent General Electionof 1979 proved to be critical ; there had been (3 years before) a referendum onEuropean membership which seemed to have settled that dispute; in the up comingUS elections an emerging candidate was a former Hollywood actor used to‘performing’ ; and, more importantly, questions of equality and rights werebeing contested ; the Far Right secured a significant number of votes in localelections that year and the Anti Nazi League was formed to counter growinglevels of racism and violence. 1978 also marked a decade on from a range ofgovernment funded initiatives (the Urban Programme) introduced (in part) inresponse to impact of a speech by Enoch Powell (a Conservative politician andrepresenting  powerful anti -immigrationviews which added to a growth in racism and racist attacks ). So a verydifferent period compared to now ? 

A session at the Annual Conference held on the 13th November 2019

The setting up of ARVAC in 1978 represented an important step in establishing a bridge between voluntary and community organisations / activists and academics. We might now describe the latter as ‘activists ‘ too. They valued the opportunities for learning with and from each other and , more significantly, they saw that small voluntary organisations often lacked the resources (human as well as financial ) to engage with the needs of funders. Whilst small volunteer led groups lacked the physical or professional infrastructure that the larger charitable agencies had they often reflected a more responsive and localised way of campaigning or questioning decisions made.

ARVAC saw its role as supporting and nurturing this layer of community activists and leaders giving practical support to their work. ARVAC’s mission – in that sense – was to be a genuine and facilitative friend to these (often) informal and reactive campaigns and groups. It is important to remind ourselves that the period from 1968-1978 was a decade of change and disruption. On one level we can book end the decade by the Powell Speech and the rise of the National Front. In between there was the Three Day Week a short lived Conservative Government followed by a minority Labour Government and three elections between 1970 and 1974.

It was , also, a decade in  which the Urban Programme and a range of other initiatives (some borrowed from the US War on Poverty in the 1960s) began to fund a number of projects at the local level : from legal aid to tenant participation to promoting community consultation on housing and planning as well as health. Looking back we can see the emergence at this time of a much more professionalised voluntary and community sector. Together with policy initiatives at the centre to reframe social work and youth work we can see the growth in universities of accredited and approved degree and advanced qualifications which did lead to a sector which looked very different 10 – 20 years later never mind 40 years on.

There is another story to be told about the impact these developments had on higher education departments. And that might be for another time and place. But for those ARVAC activists who were themselves working in universities these developments often came with unintended consequences. The growth of these kinds of programmes meant they were externally regulated. The growth in the regulation and quality assurance of all programmes and HE in general is a part of these changes too. It illustrates an important political as well as policy development. The 68 – 78 decade can be seen as a period in which in many places globally as well as in the UK there was an upsurge in non-traditional political activism from the anti war movement to Equal Pay for Women to the Anti-Racist campaigns as well as trade union activism . Alongside these activities there was also a growth in community action too with local newspapers being set up and opposition to planning proposals and housing redevelopment. It is, also, a period too in which the myriad of urban focussed interventions sought to mitigate the worst effects of poverty and poor housing. Charities were set up to campaign for an end to child poverty (CPAG) or to meet the needs of the homeless (Shelter).

These local and national campaigns did result in policy changes and in the growth of a new category of public professional to work with families and children. These new professionals needed education and training. Over time we can observe that the places where these former activists or willing to be activists went to be trained became increasingly deradicalized and depoliticised. Whilst this process took place over time it is not the case that the changes in practice or the radical edge to such programmes were toned down immediately or consistently. From the late 1970s to the late 1980s even whilst the Thatcher Government was seeking to impose its values at the local level of Town Halls and universities there were forms of resistance. The promotion of an alternative approach through decentralisation and the setting up of neighbourhood city halls were common features of the response at municipal level. Often accompanied by tenant participation or equal opportunities initiatives these developments sought to connect with local community groups.

This was ( I think) ARVAC’s space. We offered (and I think still do) a different but complementary approach to other agencies or , indeed, universities. We were seeking to work with those groups that did not have access to larger pots of funding or were wanting to steer their own path. I think that ARVAC has , from the start, valued working collaboratively and in so doing tried to work in a way that understands that power (and especially professional power) does make partnership working impossible if it is not acknowledged and difficult when it is. The development of the Getting Started Tool Kit (revamped and relaunched at the 2018 AGM) was a recognition that we wanted to ensure (some how) the sustainability of the sharing of research skills and processes and in a way which was genuine and congruent with our values.

I think this approach is still valid and even more so in 2018 / 2019. The 1990s and through to 2010 saw a period of unprecedented growth in funding for the voluntary and community sector. From the setting up of the Single Regeneration Budget to City Challenge to New Deal for Communities and so many , many more developments the VCS were ‘at the table’ ! The Third Sector Research Centre too was another important development . We know that being ‘at the table’ is not the same as being ‘heard’ but funds did flow to support infra structure organisations. The significant changes especially during the New Labour years and then after 2010 in the context of austerity was the growth of the VCS as service providers. Why does this matter ? I think it reflects an important (and I appreciate at selective) step in the history of the past 40 years. When ARVAC was created the capacity of voluntary organisations and community groups to take on functions of the local state was not assumed to be a factor in the public provision of services. In 2018 we assume the opposite. We , also, assume that voluntary groups or campaigning groups when they look for funding will prepare a business case and an impact assessment. In other words as the expectation of responsibility has shifted down to local groups so has the expectation of what they must be able to demonstrate has gone up.

ARVAC through its modest interventions but through its potential to mobilise good will and draw on extensive networks has a role still to play. It remains necessary that such groups and networks are able to connect with critical friends and more knowledgeable others (not in a elitist way of thinking but in the skills they can bring). Our challenge to ourselves is how to sustain , develop and support this network of critical friends who can connect with groups and agencies in order that the values of such activist groups are nurtured and developed.

John Diamond

December 2018