Local authorities, which contribute half the sector's statutory funding, have been accused of treating voluntary organisations as easy targets after a spate of funding cuts.
They have until the end of February to finalise their 2009/10 budgets. Some have wielded the axe already, prompting fears that more cuts will follow. "We are very concerned," said Kevin Curley, chief executive of local infrastructure group Navca. "We are seeing a pattern emerging and there is a serious risk it will continue because local authorities see the sector as an easy target."
Curley urged councils to consider the "multiplier effect" before making cuts. "Voluntary organisations multiply the benefit of a grant by bringing in volunteers and help-in-kind from the private sector," he said.
He said councils that failed to consult in a Compact-compliant manner risked legal action. "They could find themselves facing public law challenges and judicial reviews," he said.
Hastings Borough Council and Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council have both reduced their voluntary sector spending. Gloucester City Council proposes to do likewise.
A Local Government Association spokesman said councils faced a £2.5bn shortfall because of the recession and had received the "worst financial settlement for decades" from central government in October 2007.
"Pressure on services is increasing and income is falling," he said. "Councils have to make tough decisions."
An LGA survey last month found two-thirds of council chief executives are aware local voluntary organisations are experiencing increased demand for their services. One in 10 chief executives said they had been asked to give emergency grants to the sector
The council has rejected a proposal in its draft budget to withdraw funding from its rural and community investment scheme, which awards about £40,000 a year to volunteer-led groups. Independent councillor Janet Wood persuaded the full council to preserve the fund, arguing it would be "scandalous" to stop supporting such groups. Yet she remains concerned about the viability of the scheme and another grants programme for arts projects. "It's looking grim for the sector because it's very easy for councils to cut their grants," she said. Wood said there had been no consultation on plans to drop the scheme.
Stories from the front line
TONBRIDGE AND MALLING BOROUGH COUNCIL
The council ended its annual £60,000 voluntary and community sector grant scheme this year after charities had begun applying. In a letter to previous applicants, the council said it faced a financial crisis and a gaping hole in its finances that could "be addressed only by reducing expenditure across the board". Caroline Shaw, chief executive of Voluntary Action West Kent, was scathing about the council's attitude to charities. "We have written it off as a hopeless case," she said. "It sees the sector as an easy target because it does not have a statutory commitment to support voluntary groups."
GLOUCESTER CITY COUNCIL
Charities in Gloucester are opposing a council proposal to reduce its voluntary sector budget by 5 per cent, which would amount to £42,000. The council has also proposed cutting its legal services budget by an additional 5 per cent, so some charities could lose more. Sally Pickering, chief executive of the Gloucester Association for Voluntary and Community Action, was due to meet council chief executive Julian Wain this week. She said: "People are feeling pretty depressed. You can't make efficiency savings when you are already working above capacity." She claimed there had been "no real consultation" on the cuts.