Last rites for the “big society” as charities join the critical list

“It’s an idea built on sand.”

So, there's the rub. The spending cuts, coupled with a huge drop in income, have left the charity sector dangerously exposed just at the moment ministers talk of handing over service provision.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) issued a bleak survey this week showing tht confidence levels in the voluntary sector's financial future are at an all-time low. Respondents also demonstrated low confidence in their organisations' general situation and finances. It reported:

97 per cent of charity leaders expect economic conditions within the sector to be negative over the next 12 months.

The key findings are grim:

  • 35 per cent plan to decrease the extent of services they offer during the next three months.
  • Over half (53 per cent) of respondents said that their organisation's financial situation had worsened over the past year.
  • 55 per cent said they planned to reduce staff numbers over the next three months.
  • 64 per cent of respondents felt that the general situation of their organisation would get worse over the next 12 months. This is an increase of 3 percentage points since the previous quarter.
  • 83 per cent of respondents felt that economic conditions within the UK as a whole will be negative over the next 12 months.

These are significant numbers: the latest Labour Force Survey figures for the fourth quarter of 2010 show that the voluntary sector employs 793,000 people, the same figure as reported during the previous quarter.

The hope for charities had been that the "big society" would end the era for charities of piecework and grants that lasted a maximum of three years. What the sector admitted this week is that the dream has died.

Most charities won't be able to scale up or have the staff capacity to meet the challenge of running services, let alone modernise them.

They had already suffered a drop in income from donations because of the downturn. That is critical, because most charities have incomes of less than £100,000 a year. Even in 2002, back in the good times, more than 42,000 had an income of £1,000.

That's before interest rates on current accounts dropped to the level they are now, VAT, fuel and the rest.

Imagine you're running a lunch club in Gateshead for 30 older people. Membership costs can't go up, but your costs do and the value of any assets will have sunk.

Income usually comes from revenue (yes, those coffee mornings), investments (if you're lucky), donations and legacies.

But people are living longer, the value of their estates has been hit by the recession (the drop in house prices) and many are having to pay for end-of-life care out of their estate.

Research last year by the Cass Business School on 20 leading legacy-earning charities, which together attract more than two-fifths (42 per cent) of all charitable legacies, shows that there was a real annual fall of 3 per cent in their legacy values in 2008-2009.

Ironically, those same people are those most likely to turn to charities for help, particularly for assistance with their care or support through initiatives such as befriending services.

A little-seen announcement by the Care Quality Commission this week revealed that councils have cut the number of people whose care they will fund – adding to the problems.

More older people will be unable to donate, the charities providing care services are going to be squeezed even harder and demand for them to step in will rise.

This is partly why the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organsiations (ACEVO) wrote to councils this week, asking for reassurance that even in the toughest of financial climates the voluntary and community sector won't be treated unfairly. They don't have much hope.

Part of the problem is the early settlement made with the Treasury by the Ccommunities Secretary, Eric Pickles. It resulted in 28 per cent budget cuts for councils which will be front-loaded. Pickles helped kill the PM's "big society" initiative before it even got off the ground.

And old issues remain unsolved. The cost of tendering for public-sector contracts is still a problem, the Cabinet Office admits. Small charities are up against major PLCs with dedicated bidding teams. The promise of future cash streams remains exactly that.

One respondent to the NCVO report warned:

The idea that the Big Society will provide all the answers is built on sand, as many of us will fold and simply not be there to provide the support for individuals disadvantaged by current cuts.

The only remaining question is: where will the wake for David Cameron's grand design be held?

Chris Smith is a former lobby correspondent.

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Let's face it: supporting Spurs is basically a form of charity

Now, for my biggest donation yet . . .

I gazed in awe at the new stadium, the future home of Spurs, wondering where my treasures will go. It is going to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world (football stadia division), yet at the same time it seems ancient, archaic, a Roman ruin, very much like an amphitheatre I once saw in Croatia. It’s at the stage in a new construction when you can see all the bones and none of the flesh, with huge tiers soaring up into the sky. You can’t tell if it’s going or coming, a past perfect ruin or a perfect future model.

It has been so annoying at White Hart Lane this past year or so, having to walk round walkways and under awnings and dodge fences and hoardings, losing all sense of direction. Millions of pounds were being poured into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. The new stadium will replace part of one end of the present one, which was built in 1898. It has been hard not to be unaware of what’s going on, continually asking ourselves, as we take our seats: did the earth move for you?

Now, at long last, you can see what will be there, when it emerges from the scaffolding in another year. Awesome, of course. And, har, har, it will hold more people than Arsenal’s new home by 1,000 (61,000, as opposed to the puny Emirates, with only 60,000). At each home game, I am thinking about the future, wondering how my treasures will fare: will they be happy there?

No, I don’t mean Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – local as well as national treasures. Not many Prem teams these days can boast quite as many English persons in their ranks. I mean my treasures, stuff wot I have been collecting these past 50 years.

About ten years ago, I went to a shareholders’ meeting at White Hart Lane when the embryonic plans for the new stadium were being announced. I stood up when questions were called for and asked the chairman, Daniel Levy, about having a museum in the new stadium. I told him that Man United had made £1m the previous year from their museum. Surely Spurs should make room for one in the brave new mega-stadium – to show off our long and proud history, delight the fans and all those interested in football history and make a few bob.

He mumbled something – fluent enough, as he did go to Cambridge – but gave nothing away, like the PM caught at Prime Minister’s Questions with an unexpected question.

But now it is going to happen. The people who are designing the museum are coming from Manchester to look at my treasures. They asked for a list but I said, “No chance.” I must have 2,000 items of Spurs memorabilia. I could be dead by the time I finish listing them. They’ll have to see them, in the flesh, and then they’ll be free to take away whatever they might consider worth having in the new museum.

I’m awfully kind that way, partly because I have always looked on supporting Spurs as a form of charity. You don’t expect any reward. Nor could you expect a great deal of pleasure, these past few decades, and certainly not the other day at Liverpool when they were shite. But you do want to help them, poor things.

I have been downsizing since my wife died, and since we sold our Loweswater house, and I’m now clearing out some of my treasures. I’ve donated a very rare Wordsworth book to Dove Cottage, five letters from Beatrix Potter to the Armitt Library in Ambleside, and handwritten Beatles lyrics to the British Library. If Beckham and I don’t get a knighthood in the next honours list, I will be spitting.

My Spurs stuff includes programmes going back to 1910, plus recent stuff like the Opus book, that monster publication, about the size of a black cab. Limited editions cost £8,000 a copy in 2007. I got mine free, as I did the introduction and loaned them photographs. I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s blocking the light in my room.

Perhaps, depending on what they want, and they might take nothing, I will ask for a small pourboire in return. Two free tickets in the new stadium. For life. Or longer . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times