The Nature, not the Size, of the Cuts is the Issue

Progress Online Column, August 2011

NCVO report that there have been nearly a billion pounds of cuts from the voluntary and community sector so far (see www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/cuts-report and www.progressonline.org.uk/2011/08/09/45976/) and that funding removed from the sector over the next three years will be £2.8 billion.

A few months ago ACEVO predicted that over the review period the cuts would be four to five billion pounds, some 50 per cent more than NCVO have found; NCVO’s figure is based on experience. All sources agree that the cuts are front-loaded, so the damage caused in the current financial year will be more devastating than in years to come.

No one should relax just because the cuts appear less than was threatened or because after this year the worst will be over. But nor should we make too much of NCVO’s claim that the cuts are ‘disproportionately’ hitting the voluntary sector.

What does ‘disproportionately’ mean? If statutory services receive more protection than discretionary ones in council budgets, isn’t that to be expected? ‘Disproportionate’ cuts is what Eric Pickles told local authorities they must not do: but the self-appointed arbiter of disproportionality within the localism agenda remains silent on its definition.

Surely every publicly funded service, in-house, in the community or soon-to-be-mutualised, should be able to make a case for keeping its funding? If not, why is it funded in the first place? I welcome changing the way we deliver services as long as it makes them more accountable, local, engaged and personalised and I regret that these changes are happening at a time of cuts; but it is inevitable. The left agrees that no service should be immune from making delivery more cost effective.

But if co-provision is the way forward – and it is – then where is the co-funding to accompany it? The spending round poses two massive problems.

Firstly, the cuts are coming too quickly for co-investment to cope. Social enterprises have calculated that it will take three to five years to secure essential changes in attitude (and legislation) for social investment in such bodies to play a significant role. Lord Wei agrees: Big Society requires two Parliaments.

Secondly, the arbitrary nature of the cuts will mean that some communities, geographical areas and services will lose more than others; universal access to public services, whoever actually provides them, is under threat. Those areas least able to cope with cuts – such as services for young people, as recent days may have shown – will be hit hardest.

Both issues are more challenging than the actual size of the cuts imposed or proposed.