John Echlin doesn't hold back when giving his view on the closure of Community Matters, the voluntary sector membership group for community organisations, which shut in March. "It's stupid and very short-sighted," says Echlin, chair of Yeading Community Association, one of the 850 members of CM. "The organisation has been going since the mid-1940s and community associations have come to rely on it for a whole range of support. I am amazed the government can't find some money to support its work."
CM folded after experiencing a significant fall in its income in recent years. In 2011, this was £1.8m, but it has dropped to less than £400,000 a year more recently, largely as a result of losing central government funding. The organisation continued, but in March its trustees decided that it was no longer financially viable and chose to wind down its operations.
Its closure sees the demise of an organisation that can trace its roots back to the end of the Second World War. The National Federation of Community Associations, a forerunner of CM, was set up in 1945 to provide support to the growing number of community centres that were being created to help communities get back to normal after the war. In the following decades, it played a leading role in lobbying government on behalf of community groups and helping respective administrations to deliver community programmes.
The federation was originally part of the National Council for Social Services, which later became the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, but, according to a document published to mark its 70th anniversary last year, in the early 1980s its members decided to create a dedicated organisation for community associations and it severed its ties with the NCVO in 1982. The following year it published a manifesto under the title Community Matters, which was later adopted as its name.
Graham Willmington, who was chief executive of CM between 2013 and 2016, says that since the 1980s it has focused largely on providing technical advice and training to community organisations, rather than playing the representative role favoured by some sector membership bodies. "Many of our members rely heavily on volunteers, and most of these volunteers had no experience of running a community organisation - they just wanted to help out locally," he says. "We were able to provide a range of resources, from the basics of setting up a community organisation to advice on governance and charity law. All this stuff has proved vital to our members."
Willmington says the end of the Cabinet Office strategic partners grants four years ago was a major blow to CM, but it was also affected by the loss of other government and lottery-funded programmes in recent years. In addition, cuts to local government funding have limited councils and community organisations' ability to pay for its support services, he says.
Various attempts have been made to keep CM going, including reducing the team to just three staff members and two attempted mergers. In 2012, CM almost merged with the local infrastructure body Navca, but the deal foundered over concerns about CM's pensions liabilities, totalling more than £330,000.
Willmington says it tried to "earn its way" through its funding problems but had to concede defeat in the end. CM's board is in negotiations with other sector organisations about providing assistance to its members, and has agreed a deal with the community umbrella body Locality to offer CM members reduced membership fees for 2016/17.
Yeading Community Association's Echlin believes CM's loss will be keenly felt. "It will leave behind a great big hole," he says. "I think we could even see community associations fold, especially if they face financial or legal difficulties. Before now they would have CM to turn to for specialist advice."