When we think of local charities, the image that springs to mind is often that of the village pump preservation society and their creaky wooden tombola. However, the reality is that local charities now provide the last, and often the only, line of support to many of our most marginalised people and communities.
Over the last decade grassroots charities and community groups have increasingly taken on responsibility for addressing society’s basic needs, soaking up the pressure created by cuts in overstretched public services, welfare reforms and wider impact of austerity.
There has been a proliferation of locally run food banks and soup kitchens providing food to people in crisis; local homelessness charities have become key providers of emergency clothing, toiletries and signposting services to rough sleepers in their areas.
This increased reliance on grassroots organisations has largely been driven by local authority cuts. There has been a 40% cut in local government budgets since 2010 – the resulting reduction and closure of services provided by local authorities has left many people looking for alternative, affordable forms of support.
Localgiving’s recent report into the state of the local voluntary sector found that local charities working in cause areas most affected by cuts and austerity measures have been subject to huge rises in demand for their services over the last year. 93% of groups working on homelessness, 93% of local groups offering counselling, 80% focussed on social welfare and 81% of disability groups had seen increases in demand over this period.
As Jenny Duffy of the homelessness charity Caring in Bristol has explained: “With statutory services under pressure from cuts to local authority budgets, the charitable sector has to step in to fill the gaps in provision with support from the community. The number of people sleeping rough in Bristol has increased tenfold since 2010 and we are working alongside other organisations in the sector, our volunteers, donors and supporters to help deal with the increased need in the city.”
Worryingly, the findings in this report suggests that many local charities across the UK are struggling with this escalating demand. Every homelessness charity surveyed expected a further upswing in demand over the coming year with just 14% confident they could cope. Among local groups offering counselling and advice, the future looks even bleaker, 93% of these groups predicted a further increase in demand with a meagre 3% confident that their services could absorb this increased need.
Overall, fewer than half of the local organisations surveyed were confident that they will survive beyond 5 years if current trends continue, with many facing a dispiriting trade-off between the quality and the durability of their services. In simple terms this means the withdrawal of support for thousands of the most vulnerable people in our society; fewer beds in shelters and refuges and longer waiting lists for mental health support or rehabilitation programmes.
At the heart of this issue, of course, is money. The increased demand for the services of local charities has not been met by any significant increase in funding opportunities. Indeed, in many areas traditional funding sources such as grants have dried up and, if replaced at all, they have been superseded by competitive tendering processes that place smaller, local organisations at a huge disadvantage.
However, in many ways the issue of funding is itself the symptom of a much deeper problem – the failure of government, both at the national and local level, to consult with local civil society groups and help them build their capacity in preparation for these sweeping public sector cuts.
That so many people have been given a safety net by local charities in the wake of these cuts is a testament to the passion, resilience and resourcefulness of those working in the sector. However, these services cannot be run on passion alone. The more heavily we rely on local charities to address society’s basic needs (the morality of which is open to debate), the more vital it is that we find ways to amplify their voices and provide them with the resources they need to fulfil this role.
Lewis Garland is the author of the Local Charity and Community Group Sustainability Report 2018 and Communications manager at Localgiving.