Local action: Community groups are braced for yet more cuts

The double whammy of declining budgets and increasing demand for services is expected to hit local groups hard, writes Andy Hillier

Neil Jameson: cuts don't have to be a bad thing
Neil Jameson: cuts don't have to be a bad thing

Recent years have been tough for many community groups because they have had to grapple with dwindling budgets and growing demand for services. The full ramifications of last November's spending review, which set out government departmental spending over the next four years, are still being assessed, but the initial signs are that more tough times lie ahead.

Neil Jameson, executive director of Citizens UK, which helps communities to work together, says there is no escaping further cuts, but they are not necessarily a bad thing because "it is not healthy for any community to become welfare-ised". Quoting the philosopher John Stuart Mill, he says tough times can also help to empower communities because they will fight to save services that matter to them.

For Jameson, the key issue is how communities are involved in decision-making. "Cuts will continue," he says. "What we would like to see is citizen groups having a seat at the table. It is our money that is being cut, after all."

Tony Armstrong (left), chief executive of Locality, a membership body for community organisations, says the announcement in the spending review that powers to set business rates would be devolved to local authorities could have a major impact on funding for community groups. "What has become clear is that local government will become self-sufficient and reliant on keeping its business rates, and will have more freedom on council tax," he says. "But it could embed deprivation because the more deprived local authorities will find it hard to raise revenue from their more difficult tax base."

The government's decision to allow local authorities to raise a levy of up to 2 per cent on council tax to pay for adult social care is also unlikely to make a significant difference in deprived areas that struggle to raise money through tax, says Armstrong.

To mitigate the cuts the Chancellor, George Osborne, has said he would "encourage and empower" local authorities to sell off their assets to fund services; but Armstrong fears important assets could be lost to the private sector unless communities get the resources to bid for, buy and run them.

In December, the Cabinet Office said a further £500,000 would be made available for the community organisers programme, which has received £25.5m since it was set up to recruit and train people.

But no further announcements have been made about other government-backed community programmes, such as the Community Rights and the Our Place schemes, many of which are managed by Locality. Armstrong says it is too early to say what will happen to them. "We're in touch with the Department for Communities and Local Government, and we're still waiting to hear if that activity will be continued," he says.

Richard Bridge, director of enterprise at Community Matters, which supports community sector organisations, has been helping to deliver a number of government-funded programmes, including the Our Place and First Steps programmes. He anticipates cuts in the coming months: "Broadly speaking, after 1 April no one is expecting there to be the same amount of money across the same amount of programmes as there is currently."

Increasingly, Bridge says, community groups tend to lack money, time, skills and capacity, and what they really need is support and guidance on issues such as safeguarding and governance. "I think we'll see more and more demands made on community groups in terms of councils wanting to shift assets or services to them," he says. "There will also be more and more demand from beneficiaries, and there will be less and less funding and support going into them."

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government says that both it and the Office for Civil Society continue to invest in programmes that create a stronger society. "The government is providing a long-term funding settlement for councils to allow them to plan with confidence and certainty," he says. "A strong, thriving voluntary sector is important for providing high-quality services to local people, and most councils have managed their responsibilities sensibly and efficiently." He says the government has made it clear that councils must "resist any temptation to pass on disproportionate savings to the voluntary sector".

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