Kevin Curley: My home county relies too much on volunteers

Cuts in grants have severely affected Home-Start services and libraries, says our columnist

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

In June I spoke at V:Expo 2015, a conference for volunteering managers in Lincolnshire. Lincoln is my home town and the place where I had my introduction to volunteering, thanks to an inspiring scout leader called Dennis Sutton. After I completed my A levels in 1969, he encouraged me to become a community service volunteer in a Rudolf Steiner School in Kent. The time I spent working with men with learning difficulties changed my life.

But what should have been a day of celebration for volunteering in Lincolnshire was overshadowed by the news that the county council had cut its entire grant, worth £435,000, to eight Home-Start services for families. Support for 560 vulnerable families will come to an abrupt end in September. Tracey Ruddock, Home-Start manager in East Lindsey, is convinced that councillors had taken the decision to cut funding before beginning a consultation process. As I write, trustees are considering initiating a judicial review.

In most parts of England, Home-Start schemes are vulnerable because they rely on council grants for their core funding. By contrast Robin Wright, county commissioner for Lincolnshire Scouts, told me at the conference that his groups were entirely self-funded. With 1,304 adult volunteers in the county, he was rightly proud of the fact that "we are working in every poor estate across Lincolnshire".

Another hot subject was libraries. Some 31 face closure unless community groups come forward to run them. We debated the extent to which volunteers should be a substitute for paid librarians, but most delegates took a highly pragmatic view. Judy Stevens, a parish councillor from Deeping St James, said: "We have no choice but to act to keep our library open. We serve 20,000 people and it angers me that the council gives us the same grant as a group serving just 500."

Nicky Wilson, programme coordinator in the council's public health directorate, said each library group would receive an annual grant of £5,167 and pay a peppercorn rent for council accommodation for the first four years.

Community groups are also being recruited to take over the youth centres the council can no longer afford to run. John Herbert, the council's youth development hub manager, told me volunteers would get training and support, and groups would be awarded one-off grants of £10,000 when they took over buildings. He said: "In the first few years, council youth staff will drop in occasionally to check everything is OK."

I sympathise with council officers who want to keep youth centres and libraries open and regard handing them over to community groups and volunteers as the only option after budget cuts. The council is probably expecting too much of its community volunteers.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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