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Economic Justice

Cutting to the chase – how are Birmingham community groups coping with the after-shock of public spending cuts?

Equalities charity brap published recently their ‘Making the Cut’ report about the challenges facing Birmingham community groups over an 18-month period.  Here, brap’s CEO, Joy Warmington, examines the findings and asks what the next step might be in addressing the difficulties and finding solutions.

 

The work of community organisations has always been underpinned by three key values. The first, and most obvious, is self-help: providing services when the state can’t or won’t, or when self-help is actually more effective or appropriate. Second is self-organisation. Community groups are often at their best when they’re movements for change in society, transforming attitudes about everything from homosexuality to disability to mental health. And finally, there’s independence: working strategically with local and national government to make life better by closing gaps in services and loopholes in the law.

 

That’s the history: what about today? In the current climate, community groups are facing unprecedented budgetary pressures. Making the Cut asked what impact is this having on frontline services and the people using them?

 

To get a better idea brap has been regularly speaking to community organisations in Birmingham for over a year. These organisations work with some of the most vulnerable in the city and cover a range of sectors, including housing, domestic violence, and youth employment.

 

What we’ve found is that cuts to spending and changes to public service design are forcing individuals to go to community organisations for the support they need. Whether it’s welfare changes, the closure of local housing advice offices, reductions in youth services, or countless other things, people are increasingly turning to local voluntary sector organisations for help and advice. Between November 2014 and July 2015, for example, 77% of community groups said they had faced a ‘significant’ increase in demand for their service.

 

But that’s not all: over the same period, 88% of project participants had to make changes to their work because of cuts to funding. For most this meant changes to admin and management support. A lot of organisations have also said there is less funding for overheads and the ‘softer’ activities that help create a fuller, more holistic support service.  At the same time funding has become more short-term, making it harder for organisations to invest in their sustainability and to plan long-term interventions. A youth service, for example, might find itself in the unhelpful position of spending a few weeks working with a troubled young person only to have them referred back to the organisation some months later. Having more time with the individual in the first place might have allowed the agency to really get to grips with the problems they faced, giving the young person the confidence and resilience to solve their problems independently.

 

What is more, community groups are finding it harder to lobby local and national government about the concerns they have. This is partly because with fewer resources and increased demand, most voluntary organisations just don’t have the time to challenge this cycle of diminishing returns. For most the time available to analyse policy, engage with decision-makers, and draw out the strategic implications of new policy, practice, or legislation on their day-to-day work has been massively reduced.

 

Additionally, the constraints on speaking out are also partly because contractual relationships can make it harder for community groups to say what they need to. Increasingly, commissioning contracts – not just locally but nationally too – are stipulating that organisations can’t speak out about the impact of funding cuts. And many organisations don’t want to risk the relationship they’ve built up with their commissioner because funding is so tight. The customer is always right.

 

Since the report was published a number of local councillors and council officials have expressed concern about its findings. As communities see the impact of funding cuts really start to hit vulnerable people, most decision makers have said they are keen to deepen their links with the voluntary sector (and, in fact, some community organisations have recently told us they’ve noticed a move toward greater partnership working). Some respondents have since promised to press for formal mechanisms with which the sector can talk to and engage new governing bodies (such as the West Midlands Combined Authority). Others have offered to explore how the contents of contracts between the council and community groups are communicated, as, they claim, the intention has never been to stifle the voice of the sector.

 

This is a crucial exercise.  For  we ignore the work, expertise, local intelligence, and advice of voluntary organisations at our peril. Many have a unique insight into the cumulative impact of welfare reforms and public service changes. There is a role for public authorities now, more than ever, to engage community organisations in discussion about how to ensure vulnerable and excluded groups aren’t being left behind. And there’s a role for us, too, as a society to think carefully about what kind of voluntary sector we want to see. Because at the moment there’s a danger we’ll lose the side of it that campaigns, and agitates, and demands. We can’t just be content for community groups to fulfil the first of the values we outlined at the start. Historically, community groups have built hospices, sheltered refugees, and made public transport accessible for the disabled. If we forget this role, we are forgetting its potential. We are forgetting its vitally important role of holding up a mirror to society and speaking truth to power.

 

Our new work supported by Barrow Cadbury Trust will feed into the ‘Making the Cut’ project by creating a series of voluntary sector “conversations” around social cohesion and inclusion in Birmingham.  Watch this space.

 

For more information about the Making the Cut project go to www.brap.org.uk/projects/making-the-cut