The centre of Gloucester has been through a major transformation in recent years. Many of the run-down warehouses in its historic dockyards have been turned into luxury flats and shops, and plans are afoot to create a new, multi-million pound bus station in the centre of the city.
In the past few years, the local voluntary sector has been transformed too. As in most parts of the country, charities in the city and the surrounding areas have had to cope with cuts to both local and national government funding and seek alternative ways to keep going. Gloucester City Council's budget will fall to £15.9m in 2015/16 – a cut of almost £2m since 2010/11. The budget of neighbouring Gloucestershire County Council has increased from £403m to £420m during that time, but only because the council is now responsible for public health services.
No one is quite sure how many voluntary sector organisations have disappeared from the area in recent years, but Claire Mould says times have been difficult and a fair number have fallen by the wayside. She is chief executive of OpenHouse, a charity for vulnerable young people based in nearby Stroud, and chair of the Gloucestershire VCS Alliance, a body that speaks on behalf of the voluntary sector across the county.
"About four years ago the axe was falling on lots of charities and there were also lots of mergers," she says. But what has resulted, she argues, is a more resilient voluntary sector: "The organisations we have now have experienced a few years of cuts and choppy waters and have become stronger as a result. What we've been left with are those organisations that refused to close, even if it meant regrouping and joining up with someone else."
Both the city and county councils say they have continued to support the voluntary sector in recent years. Gloucester City Council says it has provided funding of almost £300,000 to voluntary and community sector work in the past two years. Gloucestershire County Council says it has provided more than £4.3m by means of a variety of streams, including £2m through the Active Together healthy living programme.
Mould agrees that the local authorities have been generally supportive, but questions have been raised about some of the cuts. "Some money has been taken away from schemes that don't cost much to deliver but make quite a difference," she says. "In some cases, administrations have decided that it's easier to have one provider than deal with 15. You can't argue with the logic in that, but there is concern that this has diluted some of the excellent work being done in the area."
Charities have had to accept that the comfortable relationships they might once have enjoyed with statutory funders no longer exist and that they need to seek new sources of money, Mould says: "They are having to start throwing mud at a different wall and think in more creative ways. They have to change the way they approach funding or how they are branding themselves - it's not necessarily about changing their core values, but about how they are perceived."
As a result, she says, local charities have had to work hard to convince new funders to support them – and they have to become more entrepreneurial. For example, her charity, OpenHouse, owns a shop and cafe in Stroud that are leased out and bring in some income. It is also planning an initiative to provide desk space for disadvantaged people who want to set up their own enterprises.
Another example in the centre of Gloucester is the social enterprise Kingfisher Treasure Seekers, which has set up a shop and cafe to fund the projects it runs for disadvantaged and vulnerable teenagers and adults (see case study, below).
One trend that has affected local charities, says Mould, is an increase in the number of large national organisations that compete for contracts once held by local bodies. "We've seen big national organisations coming in and using professional bid writers to secure tenders," she says. "The local organisations might have the expertise and be better placed to deliver a contract, but they don't have the money to pay for a big external bid writer. There have been a few occasions when locally based organisations have missed out on contracts because they haven't been as good at tendering."
Some national organisations, she says, have also tried to gain a presence in the region through the back door - for example, by offering to rent office space from local groups so they can claim to have a base in the area when they bid for contracts. "That has disgruntled the local voluntary sector because they don't feel like they're operating on a level playing field, " she says.
This is why the alliance, set up by the local sector in 2013 to speak on its behalf, has been important – it has been able to feed back to the council information about what's going on in the whole county.
But Mould says that the general mood in the voluntary sector is one of optimism and realism. "What we don't want to go back to is the situation of 15 years ago," she says. "Lots of pots of money were available, but there was no sustainability. It's no good having projects operating for five years and then closing."
There is some good news on the horizon for the voluntary sector in the region. Gloucestershire is expected to receive a combined total of about £3m from the European Social Fund and the Big Lottery Fund to run projects that help people get back into work. The Gloucestershire VCS Alliance and the local enterprise partnership GFirst have been working closely on the plans with the Gloucestershire Association for Voluntary & Community Action, the county-wide support body for the local voluntary sector, and the Big Lottery Fund.
Helen Black, chief executive of both Gavca and CVS South Gloucestershire, says the funding is a fantastic opportunity for the local sector. "It will be a competitive grants process," she says. "But I hope that, working together, organisations in Gloucestershire can put together a bid that accesses this money."
A spokeswoman for both the city and county councils says the two local authorities plan to share more resources, which she says will make it as easy as possible for everyone, including the voluntary sector, to access services and funding, and will cut administration costs.
Gavca recently helped to organise an event for voluntary sector organisations in Gloucester to find out how they would like to work with the city council and other public sector organisations in the future. Black is broadly optimistic: "I hope the new arrangements will encourage more strategic working between the local councils, the voluntary sector and businesses."
Black says that charities have to adapt. "The world has changed and organisations have had to change to reflect that. All organisations need to diversify, whether we're in austerity or not, and be aware of the full range of funding sources out there."
CASE STUDY: PLAY GLOUCESTERSHIRE
Play Gloucestershire was founded by Pip Levett at the height of the Labour government's investment in play services in 2008. She went on to secure £350,000 a year over three years from the Big Lottery Fund.
But by 2011 the situation had changed: the lottery funding ended and other statutory funding was drying up. "We experienced a perfect storm," says Levett. "Central funding had gone and play and youth provision had been slashed. We asked ourselves if that was the end of the road or if we should go out there and say 'if you want play, you need to come up with some grants'."
The charity chose the latter approach. "We set ourselves a target of providing 90 days of play that summer, then went to town and parish councils asking them to give us grants," says Levett.
"That set the pattern for the next few years. We've had to go out and shout about what we do and persuade funders, even if it is on a really micro level."
The charity once employed five team leaders, but now has only two. No one was made redundant, but contracts were not renewed when they came to an end. It now has an income of about £150,000 a year from some 40 different sources, none of them contributing more than £20,000.
Levett is philosophical about the difficulties it experienced. "I think it did us good," she says. "It made us really think about what we do and the quality of the work." She is reasonably optimistic about the future, partly because of the amount of funding available to tackle issues such as school-age inactivity. "But we have reached near-exhaustion," she says. "It would be good to get to the point where we have more core funding and funding for more strategic work."
CASE STUDY: FURNITURE RECYCLING PROJECT
The Furniture Recycling Project has operated in Gloucestershire since 1996. It generates its income, which was £835,000 in 2014, from the sale of affordable household and electric goods and from funders such as the Big Lottery Fund. It has warehouses in the Gloucester docks and shops in the city and Cheltenham.
Ian Ellis, chief executive of the FRP, says the charity has fared reasonably in recent years because demand for affordable furniture and goods has been high during the years of austerity. Selling goods on eBay and renting specialist reclining chairs to people with medical conditions has given it new sources of income.
But the charity has shed some services. Last year it reluctantly closed a training programme that worked with young people not in employment, education or training, resulting in the loss of seven jobs. "The way that agencies such as the Education Funding Agency and Ofsted were regularly moving the goalposts under both Labour and coalition governments made it difficult to continue," says Ellis. "As a result, numbers decreased, making it unviable. It was sad, because we'd run the programme for more than 10 years."
There are more challenges ahead: the building that houses the charity's shop in Gloucester city centre will be demolished early next year as the bus station is regenerated. Finding an alternative is vital because the shop accounts for about 60 per cent of sales. "If we don't find a location, we'll face interesting times," says Ellis.
A perennial frustration is the lack of appreciation of the money that projects such as FRP save statutory bodies. Last year, it collected furniture from more than 4,000 households, saving an estimated 300 tonnes from landfill. "If we didn't collect the furniture, there would be a cost to Gloucestershire's local authorities," says Ellis.
CASE STUDY: FAIR SHARES
Fair Shares runs time-bank volunteering schemes across Gloucestershire that allow people to earn support for themselves by volunteering their time to help others. Its income has risen steadily from £174,000 in 2010 to £416,000 in 2014, largely as a result of some large grant bids, but its chief executive, Jez Spencer, says the past few years have nevertheless been difficult.
The charity has had to cut eight staff in less than three years, reducing its headcount to 17, and close offices in Cirencester and Cheltenham after they became unviable, reducing the number of its offices in the county from seven to five.
"The charity secured a substantial grant of £300,000 in 2011, then secured some other funding from the Big Lottery Fund in 2012 and, more recently, the Tudor Trust," says Spencer. "Since then, we've had some grant successes, but it has been a real challenge. We have been actively applying for funding, but in recent times we just seem to receive knock-back after knock-back."
The funding situation has been so tough over the past two years that all staff have been issued with risk-of-redundancy notices on two occasions.
But despite the difficulties, Spencer believes the charity has a bright future. He says its work remains highly valued and it continues to receive referrals from other charities that want to help people learn new skills such as IT, DIY and gardening.
Spencer also sees potential in providing services to larger local charities, such as the social care providers whose beneficiaries need to learn new skills to become more independent. But he also concedes that Fair Shares might have to scale back further. "Rather than having a county-wide approach, we might need to focus on smaller sections of the community that are most in need," he says.
CASE STUDY: GLOUCESTER AND DISTRICT CITIZENS ADVICE
Norman Gardner, bureau manager for Gloucester and District Citizens Advice, is an accountant who has spent much of his career in the private sector. He first volunteered for the CAB five years ago, becoming deputy bureau manager in 2012 and manager in 2013. What struck him when he started was the voluntary sector's over-reliance on public money: "Perhaps that was fair enough five years ago, but not now."
Gardner inherited a difficult financial situation in 2013. The CAB's Learning and Skills Council contract was about to end, leaving a hole of £140,000 in its income. "I was aware that we had to address our cost base and replace our income," he says.
The answer the CAB came up with was to provide financial health checks for new housing association tenants. "If people address their debt problems with a debt-management plan, they are clear to pay their rent, which reduces the housing association's rent arrears and helps make the tenancy more secure," says Gardner. "We feel reasonably financially secure for the next 18 months."
The CAB's income is currently about £400,000 a year. Before now, about 60 per cent came from statutory sources, but this has fallen to 45 per cent, with the private sector accounting for 32 per cent and national Citizens Advice contracts for 22 per cent.
The CAB hasn't made redundancies recently but has chosen not to replace departing staff, and it now relies more on its 100 volunteers. One significant change is the number of younger people who volunteer. "Traditionally, about 80 percent of those who came to train as volunteers were retired," says Gardner. "Today, most are in their 20s and seeking work. They want to put on their CVs that they worked for the CAB."
Gardner say Citizens Advice remains well regarded but he has concerns about the future. "The more that money becomes scarce, the more people will be bidding for advice contracts, and that will force the price down," says Gardner. "As soon as the price goes down, so will quality, because people will do things on the cheap."
He also has concerns about those who need advice but don't have access to the internet. "We keep hearing about a digital explosion, but 80 per cent of our clients have no internet access and can't afford to ring us up," he says. "It's essential that face-to-face advice continues."
CASE STUDY: KINGFISHER TREASURE SEEKERS
Kingfisher Treasure Seekers is a social enterprise in Gloucester. It began after members who ran the Treasure Seekers group for people with learning difficulties at the local Kingfisher Church saw the potential to open a shop offering work placements to their beneficiaries.
Last year, the enterprise moved to a four-storey building near Gloucester Cathedral, where it runs a sweet and gift shop, and a separate cafe. It currently employs six staff.
Craig Tucker, managing director of Kingfisher Treasure Seekers, says: "Our general mission is to reach people who are disengaged. We work with lots of people with learning disabilities, people who are recovering from addictions and young people."
Over the past year, Tucker estimates, the shop has provided about 200 work placements. Treasure Seekers also runs discos, arts groups, performing arts groups and fitness sessions for people who are socially isolated. It funds its activities with income from the shop and cafe, charging fees for some groups and raising funds from other sources, including the council.
Tucker says the social enterprise is working well and believes that it is here to stay, despite the tough trading environment for small businesses.
"Volunteering and work placements provide massive benefits," he says. "There are lots of people out there who don't have anything to do."