Quick, savage cuts may be good for the economy but they will damage the voluntary sector

A few weeks ago, Nick Hurd, the new minister for civil society, toured Paddington Development Trust, a charity that provides community services.

Afterwards he declared himself well satisfied. The trust, he said, was an “emblem of the big society in action”.

Barely a fortnight later Hurd’s colleagues in the Communities and Local Government department stepped in and made a decision which will take hundreds of thousands out of the trust’s £3.4m budget this year and much more in years to come. The trust fears it could eventually lose three quarters of its funding.

CLG has written to councils telling them it is immediately stopping funding worth £1.2 billion. Programmes such as the Working Neighbourhoods Fund and the Connecting Communities scheme will not receive a penny more. In many cases local authorities, struggling to cope with huge drops in their budgets, have simply passed them on to the third sector.

The government has said that cutting quickly will mean cutting less. But instantaneous cuts do more damage. Charities have no time to plan how to manage them, or find alternative sources of funding; nor can they simply stop their programmes overnight. Campaigns cannot be instantaneously un-organised, premises un-rented, employees un-hired.

The cuts have come so quickly that many organisations will not have time to adapt. Rather than retrenching, and starting again with a lower budget, many will go to the wall.

With them will go the knowledge, experience and dedication of the workers they employed, the funding and goodwill they leveraged from the community, and the reputation and trust they had carefully fostered. They will not be easy to get back.

The principle behind the big society is the growth of communities – making them stronger and more resilient. But communities are like rainforest. They take a long time to grow, and have a complex ecosystem. The government’s decision will destroy part of that ecosystem. It will not be easy to regrow.

  • Todd Hannula

    Agree with comments on cutting fast; sort of. I think the problem with fast is that it usually lacks strategic thinking. However, I think the bigger problem is that we have created lots of community led organisations that are too reliant on government funding / contracts. Perhaps the Big Society idea is getting lost in translation–I think Hurd was probably sold on the commerciality of the development trust (a great model for the big society!), but what usually is left out of the conversation is the fact that many are simply extensions of the government, not replacements for new kinds of delivery.
    The challenge for Development Trusts moving forward is adaptation to the new world order, and their speed at doing so. I think they are up to the challenge.
    I don’t sign up to the fact that cutting the government budgets that subsidise operations will chop down the community. It will do lots of things, but the community is not the government contract.
    I am excited to see how Development Trusts react (take this oppty) and how they return to community activism of their own making and not that determined by the government funders. Interesting times indeed.