Nineteen per cent: that’s how much the 34 local councils that took part in a Third Sector survey are cutting their voluntary sector budgets in the coming year. That compares with the 27 per cent reduction the government has ordered in local authority spending over the next four years. This suggests that councils are not really responding to the Prime Minister’s exhortation to eschew the easy option of saving money by cutting their voluntary sector budgets.
The picture that is revealed by the survey is not, however, a complete one. The survey was not comprehensive, and many councils that responded were not yet able to specify the total amount of funding that will go to the sector. That is because dedicated voluntary sector budgets, which usually consist of grants, are often not the whole story: different council departments are likely, as the year goes on, to be giving contracts to the sector that will supplement or in some cases completely replace such budgets. The ways in which councils direct resources to the sector are changing.
The government is clearly hoping that many of them will follow the example of Reading, a council that is controlled by the Conservatives. The survey showed that its voluntary sector budget is falling from £2.5m to £1.4m. But after the Communities and Local Government department heard this figure, Reading Borough Council contacted Third Sector at the last minute to say that total sector spending, including contracts, will come to more than £7m in 2011/12, compared with £6.8m in 2010/11. No other councils in the survey were able to give comparable figures, but there was evidently a political imperative in this case.
One way or another, it is not going to be easy to establish whether councils, taking everything into account, are cutting sector spending by a greater percentage than their overall spending. If they are, will ministers really carry out their threat to intervene, given the possible legal and constitutional battles and the injury it would do to their professed commitment to localism? Watch this space.