Losing control, losing services: Impact of the Cuts in the North East

Guest post by John Clayton, Catherine Donovan, Jacqui Merchant, University of Sunderland

Over the last two years we have been involved in a study looking at the impact of the comprehensive spending review (2010) and the subsequent funding cuts on our partners in the region. This year we were particularly interested to explore whether and how localism – the Coalition idea about empowering communities to take locally based decisions to address local issues – was being experienced by practitioners and service users in small third sector organisations (identified in the first year as being most vulnerable). Fifteen interviews with practitioners and six focus groups with service users were conducted. This included organisations working across education, childcare, social work, young people, disability support, with older people, health promotion, community development, self-help groups for survivors of domestic violence and a refugee and asylum seeker support group. The sample was drawn from across the region.

Our findings indicate that contrary to the rhetoric of ‘Localism’, most participants believe that local decision-making has been removed further away from local control. In particular it is becoming increasingly difficult for small community groups to get funding because of increased changes in funding criteria and consequent competition from bigger organisations including those not based in the local area (e.g. national organisations).

The lack of control over decision-making is resulting in three main impacts:

(i) The further marginalisation of already marginalised groups including older people, young people (particularly those from Black and ethnic minority groups) women, those out of employment and welfare claimants, asylum seekers and refugees, those escaping from abuse/violence and/or who are homeless. The position of these groups is worsening as projects close, ration their services, impose longer waiting lists, claimants face harsher welfare eligibility tests, as unemployment increases and as political rhetoric demonises and blames them for their own circumstances.

(ii) The emotional toll on practitioners and service users. We found increased insecurity among practitioners and service users about what the future will hold along with an emotional toll on practitioners attempting to accommodate spending cuts without any detriment to their service users. Most participants felt funders and politicians no longer care about social need, and/or the services provided. Many practitioners spoke about feeling personally and professionally overwhelmed with the increased work resulting from covering for posts deleted, services cut and hours curtailed. Expressions of despair, bewilderment, low morale, ill-health and fears about their personal and/or their professional future and/or the future of their service and the future for their service users were articulated. Service users also talked about feeling invisible, unheard and/or not understood.

Conversely, participants also spoke of their commitment to fight for and champion their work and their dedication was evidenced in the willingness of staff to do more hours and more work with less resources. All participants were engaged in processes to develop survival strategies for their agency/group.

(iii) A level of emerging resourcefulness of participants. Whilst all participants were engaged in strategies to respond to the funding context, this did not always have positive outcomes. The following strategies were identified that may be useful at some times in some circumstances for some agencies/ user groups but which may also sometimes present counterproductive challenges:

Volunteerism, now being re-branded as ‘The Big Society’ has always existed but is now under threat. The use of volunteers is positive when it is mutually beneficial and when a realistic assessment of training, support and the nature of voluntary work is conducted. This can be negative when such an assessment is not done and volunteers are treated as free labour. There is also the risk of exploitation and of jeopardising the quality of the service provided to service users and/or their safety.

Charging for services can supplement project funds. However, there can be negative outcomes when charges result in a self-help group no longer being able to meet; or when numbers attending courses drop because of cost. Income generating can also change the focus and priorities of agencies and this can be counterproductive for partnership working as erstwhile partners are perceived as competitors.

Diversifying funding streams so that agencies are not reliant on one big funder can be a useful way of developing a survival strategy. However, following the funders’ agenda can move the work away from its original aims. This strategy also demands dedicated fund-raising time and smaller agencies and community groups are often not able to invest this kind of resource.

Developing consortium bids, co-operation and partnership building can be a useful way of building local strategies about need and the provision of services. However, there is evidence that current interpretations of procurement and commissioning procedures of local authorities result in big, national agencies being preferred over local community-embedded consortia. This also has a negative impact on a multi-agency working ethos.

Campaigning and lobbyingcan be useful ways of raising the profile of the work of the agency/group. Again, this takes time and smaller agencies/community groups may not be able to compete with larger agencies to undertake this work which exacerbates the ‘competition’ between groups for funding; and leaves it open for larger local and/or national agencies to move in.

In conclusion…

The rhetoric about ‘localism’ and ‘The Big Society’ is contradicted by our findings which suggest that among the third sector there is a sense of losing control. We recommend:

  • A regional manifesto for the ethical use of volunteers
  • Monitoring by funders to assess the impact of the localism agenda on their spending decisions
  • Strengthening of the role of umbrella organisations to represent the needs of third sector organisations
  • Strategies to promote collaborative working on consortia bids
  • Long-term/in-depth research on the impacts on marginalised service users
  • Development of skills within providers of public services to produce evidence of their worth and value to use in funding bids.

Department of Social Sciences

University of Sunderland

October 2012

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