Coping with cuts in Northamptonshire

The region's ailing county council suddenly withdrew long-standing contracts and grants to voluntary and community organisations at the start of the year. PJ White reports on the effect this will have on the local sector

Voluntary Impact Northamptonshire
Voluntary Impact Northamptonshire

In January, Dawn Cummins, chief executive of Voluntary Impact Northamptonshire, signed the organisation’s annual service contract with the county council. Worth £250,000, it covered services including infrastructure support for the voluntary sector.

Only a matter of weeks later the contract was scrapped as the financially stricken council sought to shave another £9.9m from its budget, which will bring the total savings to be made to £39.2m in 2018/19. Cummins attended the council meeting where the reduced budget was agreed and returned to the office knowing that redundancies were inevitable among her 24 staff, and that a severe reduction in services would follow. 

VIN was the biggest voluntary sector loser, having lost a third of its income as a result of the contract loss, but it was not the only one. The Northamptonshire
Association for the Blind lost £73,000. Northampton-based Deafconnect, which works with profoundly deaf and hard-of-hearing people and is already Struggling to raise desperately needed funds, lost £38,700.

man with beard wearing glasses

"No one thought they would withdraw entire support," says Alex Lohman (right), chief
executive of the NAB. "It really does undermine, in a thousand little ways, the strength of the sector in Northamptonshire."

Anjona Roy, chief executive of the Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council, believes the impact will be felt most by the most vulnerable: "We know this will affect black communities, LGBT communities, people with disabilities and disabled people much more than anybody else."

Smaller grants disappeared last year. In July, Victoria Miles, chief executive of the Northamptonshire Community Foundation, was told by the council it was in dire financial straits. "Without any notice or consultation, it was cutting the grants programme we delivered on its behalf." The NCF had delivered just six months of the £1.3m contract. Scores of organisations around the county lost vital income streams.

There is anger across the sector. One chief executive declined to speak to Third Sector on the grounds that she couldn’t say anything printable. Roy says the council’s failed business model, dubbed Next Generation, was "predicated on a kind of rainbow land with a unicorn in it that was going to appear and solve all our problems". The government’s best-value inspection report in March 2018 said pretty much the same thing in more bureaucratic language.

Taking stock

Weeks after the initial shock, organisations are taking stock and looking to the future. In March, Sajid Javid, communities secretary at the time, said he was "minded to implement" an intervention package that would include appointing two commissioners to oversee the governance and financial management at the council.

Much of the sector’s energies are focused on getting a seat at the table when the commissioners arrive. Cummins says: "What we have to do as an organisation is look at where strategically we are best placed to be able to support a sector that is under a huge amount of pressure, and how we survive as an organisation to do that." She wants to work with the commissioners and the council staff to find out how to move forward, rather than look back: "We are where we are. We can’t change what’s happened."

Voluntary Voices, an informal grass-roots campaign group, has been created in recent months. Its emphasis is not on getting grants reinstated, but on achieving recognition that the local voluntary sector matters and deserves at least to be consulted on future changes. Robin Burgess, chief executive of the poverty and homelessness charity the Hope Centre, wrote on behalf of the group to Javid to ask for the sector to be full partners in discussions.

Meanwhile, Lohman is considering ways to persuade the council to reverse its cut to the NAB. This includes challenging the council on decision-making processes: "We believe that the amount of funding provided to blind and partially sighted people doesn’t equate to a reasonable view of what their obligations are."

Some of his arguments are based on whether or not equality impact assessments were carried out or obligations under the Care Act fully met. He also wants to make a case based on financial common sense. "For every pound they give us they get four pounds spent on services," he says.

No redundancies are planned at the NAB, but it will be looking for alternative funding, reviewing commitments and even considering charging. As a long-standing body with reserves, it has the luxury of a little time, says Lohman.

Replacing the income

Deafconnect is less focused on reversing the loss of £38,700 and more on replacing the income, says chief executive Joanna Steer. She thinks it unlikely it will get a council contract again: "We’ll have to reduce our service and look for other funding."

Her intention is to maintain the drop-in service, but the appointments service for clients is going to be seriously reduced. "Charging is one of our options," she says. "If a client comes to a drop-in session and has more need than we can sort out in half an hour, the first thing we’ll offer is to charge. We’ll have to assess it client by client."

Steer also plans to contact lots of local organisations to "see if they can do some fundraising for us". And she’ll be going to trusts and foundations, as she has done in the past: "We have to repackage what we’ve been doing for the county council as a new service, because so many organisations don’t want to fund ongoing services."

Nor do funders want to pay for services that should be supported by statutory
organisations, says Miles. She points to a rise in applications coming to the foundation for core funding, "sometimes just small, hand-to-mouth grants for three to five months’ running costs". This is not what community foundations are for, she says.

From the applications she has received and the projects she has seen, Miles is in a good position to assess the future – but it is bleak. "I think we’ll lose a lot of groups and organisations, because they will just not be able to afford to run."

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