£11m more council cuts? Charities can help, but we can’t do it for nothing!

Posted on 16th November 2012 by

Belatedly reading an article in The Argus from last week about the sudden hike in expected levels of cuts to Brighton & Hove City Council’s 2013-14 budget, I was struck by the responses of some of our local leaders – that the council should be looking to work more with the voluntary sector to solve their financial woes. I was pleased to see this mentioned as a solution, but alarmed about the implication that this would be a bargain basement way of doing things.

The Argus says: “Over the last few weeks, a devastating series of recent Government announcements suggest that their cuts to our budget for next year have jumped up from £14 million to about £25 million.” Jason Kitcat in Tim Ridgway’s special report: Brighton and Hove council cuts and the threat to local government.

That’s £11 million more in savings that the council will have to find within one financial year.

Cllr Kitcat and the representative from GMB union have similar views on where the fault lies for this, and indeed I agree it is exceptionally difficult to plan for next year when you do not know what your income is going to be.

But small charities do this and have done this every single year almost for time immemorial!

In the last few years Impetus has regularly been in the position of not knowing whether Council contracts were going to be renewed or not until well into the financial year in question.

This is just a niggle though, as we in the charity sector all live with this every year and through the immense passion, patience and understanding of our staff we manage to pull through.

My real point about the Argus article is the implication that charity- or community-run services will be free or very cheap.

Cllr Geoffrey Theobald (Con leader) says: “I think services will be dealt with in a different way, perhaps by collaboration with other councils, perhaps by sharing services with the voluntary sector and some things could be dealt with by the private sector.”

Cllr Gill Mitchell says (Lab & Coop leader) says she “preferred a ‘co-operative model’ where users and those delivering it took shared ownership of a service”.

The article also quotes the New Economics Foundation suggestions a range of options including:

Partnership council – services delivered through a partnership of the council, private sector and voluntary sector.

Community cooperative co-production – supporting cooperatives to deliver services on a not-for-profit basis with any surplus reinvested.

It was interesting to me that the go-to response in some quarters (although not the Greens or the Unions) is services delivered by the voluntary sector, or through some kind of cooperative model.

As a small service-providing charity, we are of course in favour of these options being considered. However, the massive caveat to that is that services provided by the voluntary sector and by community cooperatives are not free!

They may sometimes be cheaper, and they can be more effective. The benefits of using smaller, local organisations that have strong service user involvement, strong community support and strong volunteer-involvement are clear. People receive services which are tailored to them, often tailored by them.

But, it is essential to remember that charities are running on tiny margins (none of which is profit, it is all ploughed back into the running of the organisation) and have to be as business-like as the private sector to a) compete to do this work in the first place, and b) ensure that the quality is high, that service users are safe and the staff and volunteers are well-managed.

None of this comes for free, the voluntary sector is not just cheap option, it is a highly professional sector designing and delivering complex and essential services for people all across our city and it should be valued highly for that – both in terms of what is paid for the service and what recognition is given.

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