Analysis: third sector infrastructure

The likely abolition of Capacitybuilders reflects anxiety among other organisations

Elizabeth Balgobin, Peter Lewis and Neil Cleevely
Elizabeth Balgobin, Peter Lewis and Neil Cleevely

According to data services provider GuideStar UK, 5 per cent of charities (8,500) are support organisations that employ 23,000 people in all.

Many of them, working as they do in the unheralded world of strengthening the voluntary sector's infrastructure, have been seen as a soft touch for cuts.

This appears to be confirmed by the inclusion of the infrastructure agency Capacitybuilders in last week's leaked list of quangos selected for abolition.The 49-strong agency manages the £231m ChangeUp programme to improve the sector's infrastructure.

The civil society minister, Nick Hurd, had already warned that infrastructure funding was likely to be reduced as the result of a review to be published after next month's comprehensive spending review.

The implications are far-reaching.

A total of 326 voluntary organisations currently receive Capacitybuilders grants worth at least £25,000 a time. Jon Fox, the group's director of strategy and programmes, said many infrastructure organisations "already faced significant financial pressures".

Capacitybuilders' beneficiaries include 17 organisations funded through its regional network fund, which pays groups to represent the generic and black and minority ethnic voluntary sectors at regional level.

With the new government committed to rolling back regional government, some of these organisations are already struggling.

London Voluntary Service Council, for example, received £81,000 from Capacitybuilders in 2009, as well as almost £600,000 from the London Development Agency and £280,000 from London Councils. All could soon be gone.

Chief executive Peter Lewis said he expected LVSC's income to halve to less than £1m next year. It has already shed four staff from its 23-strong workforce and he expects to lose at least four more. "Our organisations feed to politicians what's happening to the poorest Londoners and what's happening on the front line," he said. "We have become much more entrepreneurial. But people don't realise what infrastructure organisations do until they're gone."

The wider infrastructure funding outlook is bleak. The Big Lottery Fund awarded £156m to 336 infrastructure projects through its Basis programme, which closed in August 2008. But according to the BLF, there are "no firm plans" for further such programmes.

In addition, the Office for Civil Society strategic partners programme, which provides unrestricted funding to 42 organisations, is being scaled back from £12.2m to a maximum of £7.5m. The draft new Compact, published last week, did little to allay fears by removing the government's pledge to "support the development of third sector infrastructure".

Neil Cleeveley, director of policy and communications at local infrastructure group Navca, said: "I am sure this is an oversight that will be rectified in the final Compact."

Sector consultant Elizabeth Balgobin said: "It's a colossal waste of public money to allow things that have had public investment to die on a political whim, because you have to spend more to get them back."

- Read Stephen Cook's editorial on the quango cull

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