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.