Exclusive: How cuts have shrunk our ‘big society’

Barry Sheerman MP
Barry Sheerman MP
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YORKSHIRE’S “big society” is getting smaller by the day as charities struggle to cope with public funding cuts and dwindling donations that are putting the future of the region’s third sector at risk.

Voluntary organisations in the north are being forced to meet growing demand with scarcer resources and fewer staff as a result of “disproportionate” council cuts, a coalition of regional charities has warned.

And they are doubly disadvantaged compared with those in the south, where a stronger private sector means charities are less reliant on public funding, according to an influential think-tank.

Judy Robinson, chief executive of Involve Yorkshire and Humber, an umbrella group that represents voluntary organisations across the region, said: “It is a mixed picture but smaller, local charities with just a few staff are struggling because local authorities have been disproportionately hit in the north by Government funding cuts.

“In poor areas that means that they are not able to fund voluntary organisations and charities to do their work.

“It is a double hit because, at the same time, those organisations are finding the call on their services has gone up.

“There are fewer resources and more demand.”

She said charities were having to use inventive ways to continue to provide services but many are now drawing heavily on their savings.

More than three quarters of the region’s charities believe economic conditions for the voluntary sector will worsen over the next 12 months, the group’s latest confidence survey shows.

And nearly a third of those polled expected their own organisation’s financial situation will deteriorate, with only 17 per cent hoping for any improvement.

Yet 86 per cent said they planned to extend their services or keep them at the current level over the next year.

The cuts have also affected jobs, with some organisations putting people on reduced hours and only recruiting part-time staff.

The north-south divide created by “disproportionate” cuts is exacerbated by a greater dependence on public funding by charities in places like Yorkshire, according to the think-tank IPPR North.

Some 39 per cent of Yorkshire’s voluntary and community organisations rely on it, compared with 33 per cent in the capital and the South East, its research has found.

Donations from the private sector and individual philanthropists are also skewed in favour of London, where there is a greater concentration of businesses and wealth, the organisation has warned.

Director Ed Cox said: “We are yet to see a situation where voluntary organisations are growing - we hear many, many more stories of them closing rather than opening with the ironic exception of food banks.

“We know that many voluntary organisations are dependent on public sector grants and contracts and, in so far as public sector funding has been cut disproportionately more in the north, voluntary and community organisations here have suffered as a consequence.

“There are also fewer philanthropists in the north of England with less capital to invest.”

Politicians have warned that charities and social enterprises can no longer rely on cash from local and national government.

Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman, who has been involved in over 40 charities and social enterprises, said the future lay in ‘crowdfunding’, a collective way of raising a pool cash from individuals, usually via the internet.

“We have to go back to our roots to the days of the founding of the Co-operative movement and get involved with crowdfunding. We are not going to get money from what used to be reliable sources - central and local government.”

Competition for grants has also become increasingly fierce as cuts have hit home and donations from cash-strapped members of the public have dried up during the recession.

Among the voluntary organisations struggling against this backdrop in Yorkshire is Wakefield-based community transport charity Re-Connect.

The charity, whose Wakeybus service is used by 25,000 elderly or disabled people, is set to close after nine years in September after struggling to secure enough money to meet its £85,000-a-year running costs.

Manager Helen Smith said: “These last 12 months or so we haven’t had any luck with any funding bid we’ve put in.

“Because everybody is struggling, everybody is going for the same pots of money so it’s a battle now to get funding.

“I think there are a lot more charities going to be going down this year - I know a few. It’s very difficult.

“The big society is getting smaller by the day. I think it’s because they don’t care about the north. I’ve heard nothing about charities closing in London.

“We’re not an affluent area - people aren’t rich here. The people that use our service can’t afford to help us.”