(Democratic Services Manager) To consider the attached report.
The Democratic Services Manager introduced Ms J Foile, Chief Officer, and Dr M Gilbert, Chairman of the Trustee Board, from Voluntary Action Epping Forest (VAEF) to the Committee.
Ms J Foile gave a presentation to the Committee on the current work programme of VAEF, and highlighted the Handyman service, Befriending service, Gardening service, Benefits Advice & Information service, Winter Warmth campaign, Ace activities for learning disabilities, Time Bank project and the establishment of the West Essex Community Action Network with Rainbow Services, Harlow and the Council for Voluntary Services Uttlesford. The organisation had been running since 1993 and became a charity and Voluntary Action Epping Forest in 2004. However, the mission had always remined the same - to help other Community Associations and vulnerable residents; last year, VAEF supported over 10,000 individuals in various ways, 700 organisations and provided some 150 activities.
Ms J Foile emphasised that funding for the organisation was an ongoing challenge, and welcomed the Council being one of its core funders, along with Essex County Council. Other bodies such as the Big Lottery Fund, Loughton Town Council and Harlow District Council also contributed to the costs incurred by VAEF in providing its services. The organisation felt that it had a very good reputation throughout the District and provided very good value for money for the services that it provided; full audited accounts were available. VAEF was always interested in people sharing its news and stories throughout social media and other outlets, and if anyone had any spare time then they would be welcomed as new volunteers to help others throughout the District.
Dr M Gilbert added that she believed Ms J Foile to be an excellent Chief Officer, and that the Board of Trustees contained a wealth of business experience. The organisation was currently in the midst of a strategic review; VAEF did not have vast funds to spend so the aim of the review was to make VAEF leaner and make the best possible use of the available resources.
Councillor S Murray thanked Ms J Foile and Dr M Gilbert for their presentation, and expressed his appreciation for the efforts that VAEF made as he felt the statistics reinforced his view that VAEF helped thousands of people across the District in a structured and cost effective way. Councillor N Avey suggested that the Council should continue to support VAEF in the future, and added that he himself was a volunteer gardener with VAEF who gave up 2 or 3 hours of his time on Monday mornings.
In response to questions from the Committee, Ms J Foile stated that there was a long waiting list for the Gardening Service, with referrals for the Service coming from the Council’s Housing Officers. A total of 115 people were currently being supported through the Gardening Service, which usually included at least 4 visits. The cost of the Service to the Council was £87 per visit with 2 or 3 Gardeners in attendance. An application had been made to the High Sherriff’s fund for monies to keep the gardening tools in good condition, and the Service was always looking to recruit volunteers to provide more resource. The Service always looked to assist the most vulnerable in the community.
Ms J Foile informed the Committee that the Handyman Service supported 400 clients last year doing over 800 jobs, with many referrals from the Council’s Housing Officers. VAEF did not currently have an app but was always looking for different ways to engage with people and reach more residents. The services provided for the District’s residents was supported by the Team Manager for Health, Wellbeing & Grants at the Council, with whom there were quarterly meetings. VAEF was always looking for new partnerships with organisations, and there was currently a very good working relationship with the Council.
The Committee was reassured that the Council currently provided 28% of VAEF’s annual budget, and that Council funding only supported Council residents. VAEF had a Funding Officer who assisted with the search for funding and the making of bids for grants and funding. Social isolation was also a big problem within the District. It could be difficult to reach some people and there was a need to get out into communities more to support these people. VAEF also used the Frontline referral system to refer people suffering from social isolation to other organisations.
Responding to further questioning from the Committee, Ms J Foile stated that VAEF currently had 60 active volunteers, as well as a database of potential volunteers at the Volunteer Centre. VAEF also did a lot of outreach work to promote volunteering and used social media to promote the benefits of volunteering. There was a requirement for some training to be undertaken by volunteers, on safeguarding for example, and volunteers were supported in their personal development – particularly those with mental health issues to find paid work in the future. Training was also offered to other charities as well. Officers from VAEF did not deliver General Data Protect Regulation (GDPR) training themselves, but had attended some voluntary sector training provided by Anglia Ruskin University on GDPR.
The Chairman thanked Ms J Foile and Dr M Gilbert for their presentation, as well as their patience in answering the many questions asked by the Committee, and members were recommended to sign up for the VAEF Bulletin as it was a very interesting read.
(1) That the external scrutiny of Voluntary Action Epping Forest by the Committee be noted.