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Halifax Opportunities Trust

Halifax Opportunities Trust is a charity which provides a wide range of services, including running 11 Children’s Centres on behalf of the local authority.

Since taking over the contract they have improved the service, increased efficiency and brought extra value by weaving in the other services they offer. And, unlike a private company, they don’t skim 20% off the top.  Any surplus they make goes back into the community through their other charitable activities.

Barbara Harbinson from Halifax Opportunities Trust

Govt needs to bust the bigger is better myth & challenge the vested interests which promote it

Over the last 12 years our community-based anti-poverty charity has won a succession of local and national government contracts. These contracts have enabled us to deliver quality services at neighbourhood level in a way that meets very specific local needs.

Using these contracts and our own resources, over time we have been able to create a rich fabric of community based services, involving local people in service design and delivery. A fabric that provides a safety net for the most vulnerable and ladders for the more able.

Despite praise and satisfaction from service users and funders we are increasingly finding local integrated service delivery harder and harder to maintain and the fabric we have created is wearing thin in places.

We find we are spending more and more time and money on winning contracts at the bottom of a supply chain where payment rarely covers basic delivery costs. Worst of all the contract specifications are determined far away and don’t match the needs of local people.

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Matching local needs

Nevertheless we continue to play the game. We don’t see we have a choice. If we don’t deliver, the ‘for profit’ nationals will and they don’t seem to give a damn about communities.

We have become fairly good at winning contracts and negotiating bearable terms – but that’s not the real challenge. The challenge is in making these contracts match local needs. So far with ingenuity and creativity we have even managed to do that pretty well.

As a subcontractor in the prime contractor chain we have a lot to offer:

  • we don’t need to establish a base, or spend money and time on marketing and engagement, or get to know the people and the partners
  • we don’t need to employ translators and interpreters, recruit new staff, buy new IT systems or equipment and we don’t need to sub-contract parts of delivery to others
  • we have the resources and we know the people. We know their uncles, their mums, their dads and probably their cousin who is inside

Once we have a contract, we unpick it and then start the process of weaving it in with what we already have and do, so it becomes a new thread in our existing rich tapestry. Add to this delivery in warm trusting environments, overflowing with unembarrassed diversity and you have success. So, in the end, we deliver the excellent outcomes we are paid for and a whole host of additional outcomes we are not paid for, such as community cohesion.

Nationally and locally the ‘big small’ contracting picture is mixed. Some national departments scale up to preposterous sizes and locally it can be very hit and miss. In Calderdale leadership on this has become more enlightened in recent times and practice is changing for the better. Maybe I say that because we have been lucky.

Added value

Last year we won a £10m contract to provide Children’s Centres Services for the council delivering across 11 community premises. One of the reasons we won was the added value we could demonstrate. We are busy weaving in the added value around those centres now; services such as increased employment support, learning opportunities, ESOL, volunteering, community organising, healthy eating and vegetable growing and more. Masses of added value.

Bust the bigger is better myth & challenge the vested interests that promote it

It’s not enough, though, to have this happening piecemeal; government at the highest levels needs to bust the bigger is better myth and challenge the vested interests that promote it and find ways to make it possible for organisations like ours across the country to bring the weight of their full resource to the table to tackle this and other pressing social problems.

Barbara Harbinson @community anchor

Chief Executive, Halifax Opportunities Trust