Charities with community assets hit by 'confusing' government advice, report finds

11 Jan 2021 News

Wigan High Street in Greater Manchester

Flickr: Rigby Financial

Charities running community spaces are “facing a potential crisis” as Covid-19 hits income and planning, according to a research report.

The report How Many Of Us Had Pandemic In Our Risk Register?, published by Community Matters, said that the situation for charities and other community groups was made more confusing by “shifting and contradictory guidance” from the government about how public buildings could be used during national and regional lockdowns.

It also warned that some of these charities were already running out of financial reserves by the time the second national lockdown ended late last year. A third lockdown was imposed this month, which began after the data for this report was collected. 

Community Matters surveyed 20 groups in England and Wales which manage assets in their local communities, including sports halls, libraries and a former police station. 

Adapting to lockdown

The research found that, during the first lockdown, charities reached a number of different decisions on how to adapt their work, “from complete closure to full-scale provision of a service to people in need”.  

The report also said that many charities chose to end some, but not all, of their activities.  

Their survey showed that “there were those who kept childcare provision open for key workers, those who took the opportunity of an empty building to get maintenance and work done on the property, from decorating to major renovation, and those who kept some services running remotely”. 

'Confusing information' from government

However, those plans were disrupted when new government rules were introduced, often at short notice, the report found. 

It said: “Shifting and contradictory guidance has created problems for a number of organisations, especially those with no paid staff or where staff have been furloughed.  

“As plans have been made, so restrictions have changed again.” 

It also noted that respondents “were particularly concerned about the confusing information about what the restrictions were that they are supposed to abide by, and were trying to keep up with issues around the ‘rule of six’ but also exemptions that applied to educational activities and voluntary and community sector meetings and gatherings”. 

The rule of six was introduced during the second lockdown to set a limit on the number of people who could meet indoors or outdoors, but was replaced within days by newer, stricter rules.   

Running out of money

The research found that many charities had been “prudent” in using government schemes to maintain income during lockdowns, but had “never envisaged this situation being so long lasting. As the second lockdown is in progress, there is evidence of some organisations reaching the near end of their financial reserves”.

This situation has been exacerbated for some community groups which have in recent years been “persuaded of the wisdom of generating their own income rather than relying on grant income”.  

Trading income in the charity sector has fallen very sharply as people have been forced to stay at home during the crisis. 

These charities face “a potential crisis as a second lockdown is in progress”, the report said, “and there is no clear idea of what lays ahead in terms of either rates of infection or further restrictions”. 

Community Matters: Some spaces 'may not reopen'

John Wilson, project manager at Community Matters, told Civil Society News: "As the country enters its third lockdown, there is tremendous strain on communities.  

"The potential issue for community spaces is that, having taken the government's advice to heart and set out to generate their own income rather than being reliant on grants, [they] have struggled as they have been forced to close or opened for reduced hours.

"In normal times community spaces and centres form the beating heart of their locality, and often provide the only opportunity for social interaction amongst some of the older and more vulnerable members of their community.  

"As we seek to return to whatever passes as normal in the future, communities will need to come together. To make this happen communities will need places to gather, and the crisis in funding for community spaces means that many may not reopen."

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