Walsall's voluntary sector looks to bounce back

In the first of a series of articles about the local voluntary sector, Third Sector's editor Andy Hillier returns to his home town to look at how organisations are faring

Walsall town centre
Walsall town centre

Outside the McDonald’s in Walsall town centre a homeless man sits on a sleeping bag with an umbrella shielding him from the sun.

It’s a sight that local residents have grown used to in recent times.

Like many areas traditionally reliant on engineering and manufacturing, the town has struggled in the face of increased global competition and government austerity mesaures.

Two years ago, Walsall was ranked the fourth most-deprived town in England by the Office for National Statistics, and both life expectancy and educational attainment in the area remain stubbornly lower than the national averages.

Residents talk about a town in decline, one where crime is on the rise and drug and alcohol misuse are increasingly visible on the streets.

The local voluntary sector has felt the effects too. "No particular organisations have totally gone," says Dave Benge, development manager at One Walsall, the local council for voluntary service. "But groups such as Citizens Advice have taken big hits." 

The council has made big cuts and it saw the voluntary sector as its route to mitigate some of the cuts elsewhere

Dave Benge, development manager, One Walsall

The overall picture, though, is mixed. Some local groups, such as The Thomas Project,have grown, albeit it slightly, in recent years (see below), but others, including the Walsall Bereavement Support Service, have had to scale back.

Last year, WBSS closed its service for bereaved adults after the council and the local clinical commissioning group reluctantly stopped funding totalling more than £80,000. The charity continues to offer a service for bereaved children, funded through charitable foundations, but it can no longer assist adults unless they have been bereaved by suicide. It used to help more than 300 adults a year.

Elaine Bullen, head of service at WBSS, says: "It’s very difficult to field phone calls from people who are bereaved and say ‘I’m sorry but we can’t offer you support’. It’s dreadful. The fact that we still get calls shows there’s a real need."

One Walsall, however, has expanded rapidly. In 2015, Walsall Voluntary Action, its predecessor, employed only two staff members and was on the verge of closure because of funding problems. It led the trustees to commission a study that asked whether the voluntary sector in Walsall actually required a sector infrastructure provider. "The report concluded that voluntary sector infrastructure was needed in Walsall and, as a result, the council agreed to fund us more in line with its peer agencies across the Black Country," says Benge.

One Walsall’s annual income is now about £300,000 a year, compared with the £112,000 a year of its predecessor, and it is about to appoint its 15th staff member.

"It has been a fairly dramatic and rapid turnaround," says Benge. 

He says the the council is looking to work with the local voluntary and community sector to help mitigate the impact of the cuts, adding that it is working with One Walsall to support the development of the sector and help bridge the gaps that have been left.

Benge believes that the local voluntary sector has largely been underdeveloped. "There are people in communities who are keen to drive things and get things going, but quite often they need support," he says. "In more affluent areas you’ll see people come up with ideas that they then develop into fully-fledged organisations. But in Walsall people seem to be hesitant to put in bids and are reluctant to move outside their comfort zones."

One area where a new joined-up approach is already making a difference is the provision of youth services. The council used to fund youth activities across the borough, but budget constraints led it to scale back radically. 

Last autumn, One Walsall put together a successful bid in partnership with three youth providers to the Big Lottery Fund’s Youth Investment Fund and projects are now being delivered on the ground. "If you take the 0-19 sector, there’s quite a lot of funding out there," says Benge.

He says he is broadly optimistic for the future of the local voluntary sector. "People talk about Walsall as being a wasteland, but there are a lot of people with a lot of energy," he says. "We just need organisations to support each other and build resilience."

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