How spending cuts are eroding good work in our communities

21st Feb 2011

With cuts threatening community work in UK neighbourhoods, John Low looks at the impact and asks some difficult questions about funding,

Last week’s flurry of media stories on Big Society focused on government cuts and the media consensus seemed to be that the Big Society project, like an unstable mine, was about to collapse into a huge hole created by the withdrawal of funding. This blog draws attention to the possible impact on the community or neighbourhood sector that supports many thousands of volunteers. JRF has long championed this sector, and is currently studying Bradford’s neighbourhood work, as part of our Bradford programme.

We would do well to remember that the UK has a proud tradition of community work, the envy of most other countries. The tradition extends back for at least 50 years, since the late 1950s. An unbroken chain of residents, community workers, voluntary bodies, housing associations, academics, and funders, often by trial and error and with a focus on poor communities, have painstakingly put together the building blocks and forged the skills needed to work at the grass roots with communities, helping them to take control of their own destinies.

These efforts did not pass unnoticed by governments. From the late 1960s onwards, a regular stream of neighbourhood-based programmes, from Conservative and Labour administrations alike, targeted deprived communities. Why did governments intervene like this? One of the cardinal lessons learned by JRF from its 1992–95 'Action on Estates' programme is that however good communities might be on their own, other key departments and levels of government must be involved too. Good work in neighbourhoods cannot flourish on its own, in a funding and strategy vacuum.

In the local government sector, neighbourhood working has taken a number of interesting turns. More affordable ways of working in communities have been found. The focus on deprived communities broadened out to all communities. Ward committees, neighbourhood planning, neighbourhood forums, neighbourhood policing and clean teams, and neighbourhood management are now commonplace. Local authorities employ thousands of professionals working at community level, but these in turn support a far greater number of volunteers.

Much of this work relies on funding from Whitehall. So, what is the likely impact of cuts? First, jobs will go, and with them the volunteers they support. Second, there is a very real risk that the skills and experience of volunteers and paid workers will go too. Third, more affluent areas will be better cushioned against cuts, while poorer communities will struggle to regain lost ground, and their fortunes may nosedive.

Government has declined to speculate what the Big Society will look like, once established. Recent JRF work in Bradford, and visits to Newcastle and Birmingham, suggest that something remarkably Big Society-ish, with the skills to run it, is actually already in place. But cuts are taking place that will threaten the work in these cities, and this prompts some final questions for Government:

  • Why destroy the very thing you are trying to create?
  • If public money has to be withdrawn, where is the bridging funding to keep good work going until new funding can be found?
  • In this transition, what are you doing to absorb the lessons of our work in communities over the last 50 years, or to ensure that essential skills and experience will not be lost?
  • What plans are there to stop poorest communities sliding over the edge?

And, finally, what makes you think that, as sophisticated, established community work falls under the axe, groups of volunteers will just 'step in and take over'?