Editorial: The rollercoaster ride has only just begun

The year ahead will be the most challenging that charities have faced in two decades, but a more independent voluntary sector might be a blessing in the long run, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

If a week is a long time in politics, a year can be an age. It certainly seems a very long time since we were entering 2010 with Gordon Brown in Downing Street, fighting off the latest unconvincing coup attempt and hoping against the odds to stave off defeat in the coming election.

The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition that emerged unexpectedly from that election has launched the country on a rollercoaster ride. There are surprises round every corner, some of them terrifying, some exhilarating, some almost comic. The best example of the latter was the business secretary, Vince Cable, and a clutch of other Lib Dem ministers naively spilling their disloyal thoughts to a couple of undercover Daily Telegraph reporters.

And it’s hard to know what’s really going on. Does the government have a plan, or are they just making it up as they go along, throwing in the odd cheerful remark about how refreshing chaos can be? Is the coalition hurtling up a siding towards the buffers, or gathering fresh confidence and momentum? Are we entering a new era of citizen power, full of new freedoms and opportunities? Or is it just a case of ideologically-driven, devil-take-the-hindmost cuts, sprinkled with sugary rhetoric about big society and localism?

As far as the voluntary sector is concerned, there is a discernible dissonance between rhetoric and reality. All the ministerial talk is of fostering and giving power to community and neighbourhood groups, but these are exactly the kinds of organisations that will suffer from the closure in March of Capacitybuilders and the reduction of other forms of support. At the same time they are losing funding under local authority cuts and will continue to do so in the coming years.

In one interpretation of big society, of course, citizens in local communities should provide the necessary resources themselves, and that is perfectly feasible in more affluent areas. But in poorer areas, where problems and conflicts are more acute and the need for big society values is greater, it is mostly not feasible – although there are notable exceptions where deprived communities do organise and consolidate against all the odds.

The need for continuing resources for the sector has been recognised to some extent by the Office for Civil Society in its creation of the £100m Transition Fund, the Communities First small grants programme – the budget for which has not yet been announced – and its plan to train and deploy 800 community organisers by 2012. But the grant amounts are likely to be tiny in comparison with losses of local authority funding, and the worst of the cuts will be well under way before the community organisers are even trained. This is bad timetabling – but the main imperative in the timetable, it seems, is the need of the Chancellor, George Osborne, to proceed at breakneck speed to make immediate front-loaded cuts.

The aspect of coalition government that justifies the adjective ‘terrifying’ is the combination of this rush to cut with the rush to introduce policies right across government that are at best radical and at worst, as Vince Cable unwittingly told the Telegraph, not properly thought through. One has to ask whether the left hand always takes account of what the right hand is doing. In that context it would be interesting to send the Telegraph entrapment team into the constituency surgery of Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, who tells interviewers he didn’t come into politics to make cuts, and inveigle him to reveal his innermost thoughts about the reductions in local government spending being enforced by the communities secretary, Eric Pickles.

The Christmas break is a chance for everyone to draw breath and reflect, but this whole business is more likely to speed up than slow down in the coming year. The voluntary sector will go through the fire – this is likely to be its most challenging year of the last two decades. There will be redundancies, closures, mergers and a lot of hardship, not least – and most worryingly – among beneficiaries. But there is a challenge here too: in an ideal world, the entire voluntary sector would be just that – voluntary, and independent of government. Public funding is nowadays, inevitably and rightly, built in to the fabric of the sector, but it can often be a mixed blessing. Greater independence is now being forced upon the sector, and that is likely to concentrate minds and stir resourcefulness in a way we’re not very used to. The results might not be all bad.

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