Normal service will not be resumed

By Dan Corry 30 April 2012

Photograph courtesy of Leo Reynolds via flickrLewisham’s directly elected mayor, Steve Bullock, recently told NPC’s seminar on cuts in the third sector that, far from this being an unusual and tricky time for funding, with normality soon to be restored, ‘There is no normal we will ever go back to’.

That was something we all sort of knew. But it was still rather chilling to hear it from a frontline politician, and a Labour one at that. For the point he was making was that, whoever is in government, resources for most public services are going to be very stretched. The money will not come flowing back. And that raises some profound issues that we are all only just starting to really grapple with.

Bullock talked about the problems faced by local leaders. There will be much less money and councils will not be able to fund all the services that they have in the past or keep as much as they want in-house – tough choices will have to be made.  Do you put all your contracts out and give them to the lowest bidder – with national providers such as Serco or Capita or charities such as Barnardo’s picking them all up? Or do you try to make sure that at least some of them go to local social enterprises and charities? Clearly, a world where nothing is locally controlled is very different from one where most is – but what can you afford?

At the same event, the Newham charity Community Links – which is very active and successful – talked about the choices it faces as the cash dries up. To what extent should it keep some community centres and adventure playgrounds by making the community run them? If they can’t afford to staff the centres properly, should they close them down or employ just enough workers to keep order – and then say that the community and parents must show up to make the whole thing work?

Now this latter case – sometimes called co-production – might be a good thing. It might stop professionals telling communities what to do and instead, and at last, empower local people. But in other cases is it really an abdication? In some situations it can be dangerous – not just literally in terms of health and safety, but in its effects.

For instance, research shows that youth clubs without proper, guided activities are a breeding ground for trouble not a hindrance to it.

What impact will there be on equality and other aspects of the service? This was raised by the High Court’s decision to throw out Surrey County Council’s plan for ten of its libraries to be run exclusively by volunteers. Would an arts centre, run not by professionals (because its Arts Council and local authority money has been slashed) but by volunteers, serve the community as well as before? Do we care if its outreach, innovation and culturally diverse offerings go by the board in this new world? Whatever the volunteer-run arts centre now offers, it is clearly different from before. Society has changed.

And what about fundraising itself? Are we going to urge more and more high net worth individuals who donate to charity to make up the gap in government funding? Or will the coalition continue to signal that philanthropy is really just a fancy name for tax dodging?

So the way we make our communities work is never going to be the same again. That much is clear. There will be winners and losers – we are not really all in it together. The battle is about what sort of Big Society we have in the future. Is it one where the state withdraws, leaving those who can to organise and fundraise? Or is it one where there is an attempt to deliver fair and decent services for the whole community?

These are the real battles to be fought out over the next decade or so. The political parties need to start facing up to these issues. And so do we, the great British public.

This article first appeared in the May edition of Public Finance, and also on Public Finance’s blog.