By Jack Larkham and Nicole Sykes

When local politicos sit down to hash out a manifesto at election time, they consider both what is going to appeal to the residents they are seeking to represent and what is important to themselves as individuals and as a group. Do they care passionately about the environment and want to make that a hallmark of their time at County Hall, or would they rather focus on social care? If they have four years in power, do they want their record of success to be a new ring road or a revitalisation of the high street?

This year, as with every year, there were politicians across England – from Teignbridge  to Sunderland  – who demonstrated that social sector organisations are important to them and made the sector a key feature of their election manifestos.

Overwhelmingly, where they did so, it was in the context of the cost of living crisis. PBE reviewed the manifestos, pledges and plans of 186 local political parties across the 230 councils which held elections on 4 May 2023, and charities and community groups’ efforts to support people in financial difficulty were highlighted in those manifestos more than any other role that the sector fulfils. From food banks to neighbourhood kitchens and from 'grub hubs’ to free food stalls, political parties of all colours committed in this election to continue working with and supporting charitable activity which keeps people fed in times of hardship. Several winning council groups went a step further than simple support and committed to creating food poverty strategies, or promised to increase funding for these good causes. But only in Leicester did a winning council group make a specific commitment to end the use of food banks in the long-term as advocated for by the main food bank providers.

Through their manifestos, many local political groups have also clearly recognised the importance of advice organisations in supporting people who are struggling financially. Citizens Advice was the most mentioned charity in manifestos this year. There was, for example, a funding pledge from New Forest Conservatives for their local bureau and a commitment from North West Leicestershire to grant additional resources to fund a money advice caseworker at their local bureau. Given the ramped up demand that Citizens Advice has experienced in recent years – the number of people who have received crisis support from the charity to this year  is more than double what it was in 2020  – this clear recognition of the role it plays is encouraging.

But beyond the sector’s vital role in supporting people with the cost of living, the specific causes which local politicians recognised the social sector’s importance to was hugely varied. In line with PBE’s previous research, many local politicians recognised the role of the sector in delivering solutions to social challenges – particularly homelessness, crime and anti-social behaviour, youth activities, the environment, and health and wellbeing. All of these areas were frequently mentioned in manifestos as providing opportunities for partnership between local government and social sector organisations.

However, in 45 of the 123 council areas in which the winning political parties published manifestos or pledges, there were no commitments to support or work with the social sector at all. And only in 17 of those 123 areas did local political groups commit to deeper partnerships with the social sector, to invest in the sector’s capacity, or to work with it at a strategic level.

Just as there was significant variation in the specific areas that local political groups wanted to work with the sector on, there were a multitude of visions for how local government could support the sector as a whole. When it came to encouraging and utilising volunteering, for example, parties of all stripes had radically different ideas. For instance, Newark Conservatives committed to championing all volunteers throughout Volunteers Week, while Bournemouth Liberal Democrats took a specific approach and committed to bringing Speedwatch and Neighbourhood Watch volunteers together. Most mentions were generically positive about volunteering, but Telford Labour set themselves a specific target of doubling the number of volunteer street champions in the town from 1,000 to 2,000.

Even within the same political parties, local groups have taken entirely unique approaches to achieving the same goal. In York, the local Labour group committed to opening council training sessions up to the voluntary sector, investing in the sector’s innovation, and creating links between volunteer groups. In Cheshire West, Labour committed to a Compact with the community sector, to open up council-owned buildings and equipment to the sector, and to support crowdfunding for joint council-voluntary sector initiatives. Meanwhile, Cambridge Labour committed to support charities with fundraising advice and professional support, to make affordable workspaces available to the sector and to put an impetus on social impact investing. All three local Labour parties shared the same aim of strengthening and growing the social sector, but there is no overlap at all in how they have decided to do so.

More common than promises to strengthen and grow the social sector was recognition of the sector’s role in economic development and growth. For example, in South Hams, the Lib Dems were inspired by Power to Change and have committed to begin building a portfolio of small community investments to support community businesses. Complimenting this was a pledge to increase opportunities for social and community enterprises by establishing a development hub with dedicated staff to aid the expansion and growth of socially-driven businesses.

For Labour, co-operatives and mutuals are core to how the social sector can support growth locally. The party in both Preston and Derby committed to the expansion or establishment of community banks, while Norwich and Liverpool parties pledged to promote local credit unions. Brighton and Hove Labour’s commitments in this area were the most ambitious and specific, with the new council group committed to explore non-profit co-operative provision of early years care, social care and a children’s home.

Of course, it is right that local political leaders approach their relationships with the social sector differently. Different areas have different needs, and different policies are going to be attractive to different voter groups. But this variation within and between political parties also speaks to the lack of a national vision for the social sector, to the patchwork of infrastructure which exists to support the sector within local areas, and to a lack of evidence as to what works to bolster the sector’s strength.

PBE’s previous research has shown that local councillors of all political parties value charities and community groups, and that the majority want to work more closely with them. The pledges made by local politicians this year suggest that this ambition holds strong, but few know the best way to do that.