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Nathan Yeowell: We need to unite the sector in protecting the most disadvantaged

02 Oct 2018 Voices

Nathan Yeowell, head of policy at NPC, explains why trends in local government spending is something vitally important that every charity working with disadvantaged people should be paying attention to. 

Last month, the Lloyds Bank Foundation and New Policy Institute published A Quiet Crisis, an investigation into the trends in local government spending on disadvantage in England since 2011. Using sophisticated NPC data analysis techniques (ctrl+f) I can tell you that the report doesn’t contain the word charity once – but I think it’s something vitally important that every charity working with disadvantaged people should be paying attention to. 

Why? Because it provides a map, both to where charities should be focusing their resources now, and what the context might look like nationally in the future. 

In particular, there are two findings that the sector needs to take on board and reflect upon: 

1.    Almost the entirety of the cuts (97 per cent) to spending on disadvantage have fallen on the most deprived fifth of all councils; and

2.    Spending has fallen more rapidly in some areas than others (for example, spending on substance misuse by 59 per cent) and there has been a marked shift away from preventative to crisis provision.

Where you are matters 

These cuts have fallen almost entirely in the North and the Midlands and (generally inner) London boroughs. The corollary of this is that, in these areas, charities will find themselves struggling to meet the rising demand for services which are no longer being funded. We don’t have data on what is happening in the sector in these specific contexts, but we know from research like Localgiving’s Local Charity and Community Group Sustainability Report that many local groups are having a hard time with funding and are not particularly optimistic about the future. They certainly don’t feel they have capacity to make up all the ground left by a receding state. 

But change is coming everywhere

It’s important to understand that cuts to councils, though they have been painful so far, are going to deepen, with a reduction of 54 per cent planned between 2018/19-and 2019/20. This will coincide with reform to business rates meaning half of local councils will receive no direct funding from government. With that in mind, I think we should see the areas identified in A Quiet Crisis not as outliers, but as the future for most councils. 

What this will mean nationally is up for debate. Already, where shire counties like Northamptonshire have failed one proposed solution is to reorganise them into larger, unitary authorities to benefit from efficiencies and hopefully promote resilience. Efficiency in this context could quite easily result in fewer, larger contracts, which are likely to be out of reach of most charities who could deliver services.  

Moving money

Even if councils survive in the same shape, we may seem them react to further cuts as the councils identified in A Quiet Crisis did, by moving spending on disadvantage out of preventative services and into crisis management. This will affect the kind of services charities offer, and charities that are depending on local government funding but not able to provide crisis services will suffer. This may mean overall local government spending in the sector drops We do not know if charities will be able to adapt to this and what mixture of crisis versus preventative services they offer, or even if they generally think of themselves as being part of this binary. 

This change in approach also present a challenge philosophically. We, and others, have been agitating for charities (and funders) to move their work upstream and try to be more preventative, engaging with issues at a systems level, rather than exclusively focusing on symptoms. Meeting the needs of those in crisis is vital, but if we abandon attempts to understand and prevent crises we won’t make progress. If local government ceases to fund prevention, funders and philanthropists will need to step up and fill the gap. 

Getting organised

So, the report contains some timely warnings for the sector and is an example of what may be to come across the UK. But more than that, it’s an example and a challenge. I think the sector should ask if it would be possible for someone to create a report this useful but based on charity data? Can we see where charitable spend is going, and on what – to know if certain causes in certain places are being properly served? If it is out there, we don’t currently see it being linked up. 360Giving’s GrantNav provides us, finally, with a platform that start to open some of this up – but just think what we could do with a real time, or even recent, map of charitable spend, activity (and results!) to map against things like the index of deprivation. 

If things in local government get as bad as it seems they might, we as a sector need to respond strategically. Having the data and knowing where we can have the most impact is crucial but we also need models work working together and with partners across the UK. That’s why, beginning in October, we are going to start a coalition for change, bringing together all the charities, funders and anyone else who sees the need for coordinated sector responses to social issues like disadvantage across the UK. Reports like A Quiet Crisis are vital, but now we need a loud call to arms – uniting the sector in a commitment to protect the most disadvantaged people in society. 

Having spent the past two weeks at Labour and Conservative Party conferences, it’s obvious that grassroots members and local councillors from both parties are tearing their hair out at the social, economic and cultural vandalism that further cuts will cause. It’s time for radical thinking across the social, public and private sectors about how we organise, protect and champion our local communities for the decade ahead. 

Nathan Yeowell is head of policy at NPC.


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