The North Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate is the happiest place to live in the country, according to a number of recent surveys. This came as little surprise to residents: for many years the town has been seen as a desirable place to live. Often referred to as the Gateway to the Dales, Harrogate has long profited from the thousands of tourists and conference visitors who regularly fill the town’s hotels.
It’s also an area that can boast an active voluntary sector, with national data showing rates of volunteering in the area above the national average. And those volunteers are celebrated too: the annual Harrogate Volunteer Oscars has been running for 10 years.
"We’ve got a reasonably resilient voluntary and community sector," says Karen Weaver, chief executive of the Harrogate & Ripon Centres for Voluntary Service. "There’s about 1,000 organisations and 750 registered charities, but in line with what’s been happening generally there have been mergers, organisations extending their remit beyond the district in order to diversify and one or two closures as well.
"Probably the biggest one was about five years ago, a community transport charity that originated from the CVS, grew and expanded, then took on public service contracts but got overstretched. That was quite a jolt to the local sector."
Weaver says there have not been any casualties as substantial since, but other changes have happened, not least to her own organisation, which was born from the merger of Harrogate CVS and Ripon CVS, the result of which has been a closer relationship with the local authority.
"As a CVS we are without doubt very dependent on our borough council funding," Weaver says. "We have a very positive relationship and it is very committed to working in partnership with the local voluntary and community sector."
Funding is complex in the area, given the two-tier system that involves a county council, seven district councils and five NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups. Weaver also points to "hidden cuts": the loss of CVS-facilitated forums that brought together voluntary and community groups with the public and private sectors.
"Over the past three years the last vestiges of funding for these have gone," she says. "We’re talking small amounts, less than £3,000 a year to run a forum. But we’ve held a line: if the public sector doesn’t want to pay for it, we can’t do it without alternative funding. It damages networking and collaboration, which are often where the partnerships and new ideas develop and the unmet need is identified. That’s a wider impact that I think will play out down the line."
The changes also affected the five-year strategic plan the CVS developed in 2015 and, with the three-year funding agreement with Harrogate Borough Council coming to an end, the future is not certain. But Weaver remains confident.
"It’s not clear what the council’s plans are, but it sees the value of a thriving voluntary and community sector and the difference it makes to them and the services they provide," she says. "It will boil down to whether it can protect that budget."
The CVS operates across 500 square miles with a population of 157,000 as of 2017, a significant proportion of which is clearly not enjoying the benefits of the perceived affluence of the district. The Vital Signs report for the Harrogate District, published by the Two Ridings Community Foundation last autumn, found "pockets of deprivation". One in four neighbourhoods within the Harrogate district are among the most deprived 20 per cent in England in terms of houses of poor condition or without central heating.
Austerity has contributed to the problems, as has Universal Credit – Harrogate was one of the pilot areas for the scheme. A report from Citizens Advice Craven and Harrogate Districts, published in November 2017, expressed deep concern about the impact of the changes on claimants in the area, saying its clients were "suffering".
Homelessness, mental health and isolation are all areas of concern, with the last of these exacerbated by cuts to the transport network. This has resulted in huge demand from people for help in getting around. For the past three years, Driving Force, a voluntary car driver service, has been at the forefront of meeting that need.
"What we increasingly find is that people are very lonely and feeling very isolated," says Anna Woollven, development worker with the Harrogate Easier Living Project, which runs the service. Along with its counterpart in Ripon, the service provides support to nearly 500 registered users, with 62 drivers doing more than 10,000 journeys a year.
Year on year, demand is "rising massively", Woollven says. In Help’s most recent survey, 70 per cent of its service-users, who are mostly over 65, said they felt lonely some or all of the time.
"On the one hand it’s getting people from A to B, so it’s an essential service," Woollven says. "But more and more we’re finding that the drivers are almost like a social lifeline. They’re helping people to reconnect with their communities."