Paul Streets: Local austerity stories are corroborated by the statistics

And it’s this that helps to give the sector a voice on the most pressing issues of all, writes our CEO Paul Streets.

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This blog was originally published on Third Sector on 29 October 2018.

In the last month The Mighty Redcar hit our screens – the compelling docudrama of real lives played out in a small town where austerity and de-industrialisation have taken a massive toll.

Described by The Guardian as the antidote to the “poverty porn” of Benefits Streetand the like, it’s good to finally see the story told in a way that helps to illustrate how complex social issues occur and how hard they are to overcome.

But what’s also important is that the story of the micro – a single northern seaside town – is corroborated by the macro: a wealth of stats and reports on local authority spending cuts, which together command us to sit up in our armchairs and pay attention.

The Lloyds Bank Foundation’s recent research with the New Policy Institute revealed A Quiet Crisis in the distribution of the brunt of local authority cuts.

Its analysis of government spending data in England on a range of services for adults and children facing disadvantage shows that, though it looks like some councils have done their best to protect the disadvantaged, the most deprived areas have been hit the hardest.

And, faced with the increasing demands for help, cash-strapped councils have cut spending on the preventive measures that stop problems such as homelessness or having to take children into care in the first place.

In parallel, 360 Giving data crunched by data scientists shows that the pattern of our funding for small charities maps directly onto deprivation. It’s encouraging, because at the Lloyds Bank Foundation our spend is driven entirely by demand and need: we don’t target the most deprived areas; it’s just where most of our money ends up.

While small local charities are playing a vital role in trying to fill the gaps, we’ve yet to see the rise in unmet need that A Quiet Crisis warns us of, as funding reductions play out for anything that looks like prevention and is deemed non-statutory (think youth services or Home Start).

It’s little wonder, then, that the demands on those we fund are rising inexorably at the same time as their publicly funded grants evaporate. This is a story they have been telling us repeatedly for years as they fight for survival in a society that hasn’t yet heard them.

What’s more, we also know from research by Southampton University and the ESRC, and from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, that charities do not map well onto need overall. A more recent report, Patchwork Philanthropy by The Young Foundation, used 360Giving data to show that the combined pattern of philanthropy and public spending maps poorly onto need. Camden, St Albans and Kensington & Chelsea are spending hotspots, while Mansfield, Great Yarmouth and West Lancashire are coldspots. And Blackpool has the lowest charitable spend per head, which makes no sense at all.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government response to the cuts, which said that “local authorities are responsible for their own decisions” doesn’t offer much hope. Tracey Crouch, through the Civil Society Strategy, seems to understand the need to focus on deprived areas, but it looks like she’s going to have an uphill battle to kick the ostriches at the top of the hill out of their bunkers.

Maybe it’s the link between coldspots and pro-Brexit areas that, as The Guardian’s John Harris recently flagged, could act as the catalyst. Once complex social issues start mattering to politics and power, something might happen.

As a sector, we’re now in the fortunate position of having more data than we’ve ever had to make our case, enough to make sure the parties and interests that will fight the next post-Brexit election know the facts. But knowing about a problem doesn’t translate into caring enough to act.

Given the importance of this to the people who need us most we should be testing the Civil Society Strategy’s recognition that charities should have a “voice” – lobbying act and all – to its limits, in making sure politicians of all parties heed the warnings of the charities surviving against the odds, while they’re still there to be heard.

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