THREE years of coalition Government have seen charities in the North pushed to the wall and services closed down in record numbers, campaigners today warn.
Across the region, Government and council funding cuts have left organisations struggling to help, with women’s shelters, youth groups and animal charities all warning of a difficult future if they manage to remain open.
Today Jo Curry, head of North East volunteer organisation VONNE, warns that hundreds of the group’s members have reported the effects of crippling funding cuts.
And that growing crisis, her team said, has led to claims from Northumberland that the voluntary sector is “about to implode.”
Already the charity sector has seen closure after closure, with Newcastle Healthy Cities, Alnwick Community Development Trust and the East Durham Play and Community Network among those no longer available to help.
In its latest survey VONNE says that 59% of the region’s charities have seen a decrease in funding and a third have had to let staff go.
Around 39% of charities say they may have to close service in the year ahead, with rising concerns that there is simply nowhere else to go for many people would otherwise use those groups.
Last night Ms Curry said it was time for the Government to realise that its hopes of meeting the cuts through greater volunteering – the so-called Big Society – had not solved the problem.
She said: “We have been warning the Government and funders for years now that if you carry on cutting the voluntary sector then services will be lost, organisations will close and vulnerable people will suffer.
“Sadly the Stings of this world aren’t queuing up to use their celebrity status to demand that services to the frail, the disabled or the vulnerable are prioritised in the North East, which means that unfortunately no one appears to be listening.
“This is why we now have an ever-growing list of good charities and community groups that have been forced to close. Organisations that were loved by their service users, operating at the heart of communities are not there any more.
“Charities and community groups have become reliant on using reserves that in many cases no longer exist. The anticipated opening up of public service contracts is failing to take off in a way that fills the gaps left by cuts in grant income. We must act collectively to halt this decline.”
She was backed by Newcastle Council leader Nick Forbes. His local authority has a £2m Newcastle Fund set up to help local organisations.
But, he said: “The scale of the Government cuts and the scaling back of some major charities, including the Northern Rock Foundation, are having a seriously detrimental impact on the vital work done by charities in our region.
“The Government likes to talk about the Big Society, but in reality is seems impervious to the argument that its changes are destroying our charity sector.”
Those Government cuts have effected organisations big and small. In Ashington 76-year-old Fred MacKenzie has spent 60 years helping local teenagers into competitive weightlifting and says finding funding is increasingly hard work.
Mr MacKenzie, who runs Parkhead and Wansbeck Powersports, said that, while one-off donations for capital cost were holding up, ongoing regular funding was more difficult.
“I don’t need pay,” Mr MacKenzie said, “but you still need that extra funding to help these young people succeed, to get them into this job. And it is not easy now, there’s just not as much money around.”
The Government has defended its work with third sector organisations.
Minister for Civil Society Nick Hurd said: “A voluntary sector that receives £13bn of taxpayers money cannot be immune from the need to control our debt problem. However, we have always said that councils should not make disproportionate cuts to local charities. In fact, they should be working with them to find better ways of doing things.
“We know it is a difficult time, which is why we have made some transition funding available. We have also introduced new incentives for local people and businesses to support local community groups. Meanwhile Big Society Capital is helping grow the social investment market, a whole new source of funding for charities and social enterprises.”