VOLUNTEERS are increasingly shouldering the burden of providing services in rural communities because of austere funding settlements for local authorities and healthcare services, charity officials said.
Government funding of local councils is set to fall by 24 per cent in real terms over the next five years but already stripped back budgets have made traditionally resilient countryside communities less sustainable and less self-sufficient, Rural Action Yorkshire reported.
Charity officers Candice Dowson and Nick Scott, in an article for RAY’s quarterly magazine. said: “More and more the voluntary sector is faced with the task of filling the gaps which are left in the wake of cuts, and healthcare services and also local authorities are provided with no choice but to do more and more with less and less.”
And the pool of volunteers able to run community-led services is shrinking, they said, with cuts to public transport, the unavailability of affordable housing and better employment opportunities driving young people away from rural areas to cities - a migration which is causing rural communities to age quicker than those in urban areas.
“This in turn poses an issue for healthcare services, who are faced with delivering more care to rural areas, which may not be plausible in the face of increasing cuts and a stretched healthcare system,” Ms Dowson and Mr Scott said.
In his Autumn Statement last month, the Chancellor announced annual real-term cuts of 3.9 per cent in councils’ public health budgets over the next five years which the Local Government Association said would have a major impact on prevention and early intervention services carried out by councils.
“It is vital that local and national policy-makers ensure that the specific and interlinked issues facing rural areas are considered when directing public cuts,” the Rural Action Yorkshire officers said.
Those charitable groups left to step in and deliver services when they are withdrawn by local authorities are doing so on leaner funds themselves, said Aidan Warner, senior external relations officer at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.
“In recent years charities have faced growing need for their help at the same time as their income has decreased,” Mr Warner said.
“Pressure on charities across the country has increased as the money available for local authorities to offer contracts and grants to charities has declined rapidly and substantially.
“Charities in rural areas tend to be smaller, so they are more vulnerable to changes in their funding than larger organisations with more diverse sources of income.
“Small charities are very well connected to the communities they work in and represent a crucial and highly cost-effective resource for supporting those communities, so local authorities should do all they can to back them.”
A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said: “Councils will have almost £200 billion to spend on local services over the lifetime of this parliament, a cash terms increase and a reduction of just 1.7 per cent in real terms each year.
“Alongside this we are giving more powers and greater flexibility for town halls to take control of their finances while protecting public services.”
POWER TO HELP AT A STAND STILL
Charity sector income and expenditure has continued to flatline, an analysis by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations showed.
The sector’s total income fell by 0.2 per cent to £40.5billion in 2012/13 - most recent figures available - while total expenditure rose by 0.1 per cent to £39.3bn.
As individuals, the country is giving more to charity; a rise of 1.4 per cent to £18.8bn was recorded, while income from government contracts and grants fell by 3.4 per cent to £13.3bn.
Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, said: “These figures suggest that the sector has been running to stand still in recent years.
“We hear constantly of the substantial efforts that organisations across the sector are putting in to ensure they can continue to work on behalf of their beneficiaries despite the difficult environment.”