Statutory guidance from the Communities and Local Government department, which says councils should not make disproportionate cuts to the voluntary sector, is unreasonable, according to the deputy leader of the Conservative-led Nottinghamshire County Council.
Martin Suthers said it was "indisputably the case" that his council had made disproportionate cuts to its grant aid budget for voluntary sector groups. He said the budget had fallen by about 34 per cent in 2011/12, compared with a cut of about 8 per cent in the council’s grant from central government.
"The reality is that some of our statutory obligations, such as adult social care and child protection, are increasing," he said. "To say that if our government grant is cut by 8 per cent we can reduce our discretionary spending on grant aid for charities by only 8 per cent is unreasonable because it pays no regard to our statutory obligations and the demographic situation.
"If the government makes an 8 per cent reduction in our major budget and we still have to provide some services as statutory obligations, it isn’t a surprise that discretionary spending such as grant aid suffers to a greater extent than our own budget."
Suthers said he did not think the Communities and Local Government department had "thought it through in these terms" when producing its statutory guidance on voluntary sector funding cuts. "You sometimes wonder whether they fully understand how meeting the obligations of local government works," he said.
Suthers’ comments came in response to criticism of his council by Kevin Curley, chief executive of the local infrastructure body Navca. Curley said the council’s cuts to its grant aid budget were the most disproportionate voluntary sector cuts he had heard of.
Curley wrote to the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, last month, asking him to tell Nottinghamshire County Council to rethink its cuts to its voluntary sector grants budget. In response, Andrew Stunell, a Liberal Democrat junior minister, wrote back to say the cuts were "disappointing" but did not agree to contact the council about its decision.
Curley said the department’s decision not to intervene against the local authority suggested it was behaving in a "dysfunctional" way.
"This seems to me to represent dysfunctional government," he said. "Government ministers from the Prime Minister down have said councils should not make disproportionate cuts. But when they do, all we get is an expression of disappointment from the most junior minister in the food chain. It is an inadequate and weak-livered response."
Curley said the department’s decision not to intervene risked encouraging a cynical attitude to the government within the voluntary sector. "If the government turns its back on outrageous non-compliance, charities might well become cynical," he said.
Curley has written to Stunell, saying the response is inadequate. "The government ought to demonstrate the courage of its convictions by taking action when councils ignore statutory guidance," the letter says.
A spokesman for the Communities and Local Government department said all parts of the public sector had to help reduce the deficit and the government had provided a fair funding settlement.
"Nottinghamshire's 2011/12 spending reduction was 2.7 per cent so, whilst local spending decisions are a matter for them, we do not want to see disproportionate cuts to the voluntary sector," he said. "The best councils are making savings by sharing back office staff, cracking down on senior pay and using some of their £10bn reserves.
"Local people have a right to expect their council to tick off this checklist before setting their sights on the frontline and voluntary sector. Statutory guidance, published last September, sets out how local councils should to protect voluntary and community groups."