There is a weary acceptance that the local voluntary sector will have a lot less capacity to help people in the years ahead, says our columnist
I spent two days last week with people who run voluntary organisations in Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire and Sefton, the Merseyside borough with Southport at its heart. I want to try to sum up the issues they say they face and the different ways in which they are grappling with them.
Growing family poverty is brought home starkly by the recent growth in food banks. Sefton CVS is helping volunteers to set up Southport's first such bank and, in Nottingham, the number of them has grown from one to four this year. Police in Nottingham say that the number of people stealing food is rising and have urged people to use the food banks. I recall helping to set up the Hull Soup Run in 1982 - taking food to those living on the streets - but could not have imagined that, 30 years later, my CVS colleagues would be setting up new food distribution charities for hungry families.
Voluntary sector leaders seem exhausted by the endless rounds of cuts in public funding and services. Angela White, chief executive of Sefton CVS, told me that she was having "a good quality conversation" with the local authority, but that because it needed to cut 40 per cent of "controllable" costs this year there were high levels of stress and unresolvable competition between equal priorities.
The impact of funding cuts on the ability of local charities to respond to high levels of youth unemployment is aggravated by a number of factors: the shift from statutory grants to contracts; the aggregation of contracts making them too big for most local charities to deliver alone; the fraught relationship with private sector prime contractors; and the new enthusiasm in government for 'payment by results'.
These issues are well understood now, but what was new to me in the areas I visited was the serious loss of morale among many charity leaders. People told me that it was insulting to suggest that new social investment, social enterprise or philanthropic approaches would allow them to sustain advice, family support or youth work services. They were impatient with their national representative organisations, which seemed obsessed with their own survival through mergers. The same bodies seemed too ready to promote new funding arrangements - such as subcontracting from the likes of A4e and Serco - and not critical enough of funding regimes that won't work for small charities, such as social impact bonds and loan finance.
I found in all three areas a weary acceptance that the local voluntary sector would have a lot less capacity to help people in the years ahead.
But I also witnessed resilience and an anger about what is happening that is leading to new campaigning alliances.
As Angela White put it: "We will set up food banks and do everything we can to stop children going hungry. But we will also make sure that those responsible are made to face up to what they have done to our communities."
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser