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Surviving, not thriving: feeling the Big Squeeze

Our fourth annual Big Squeeze survey illustrates the perfect storm that is brewing for London’s most vulnerable communities.

Not only have many essential community services and organisations already been lost through four consecutive years of reduced government funding, but this year we found that demand for services continues to grow, with advice services seeing the biggest increase in demand.

This suggests that more and more people are seeking advice on issues arising as a result of short-term unemployment, welfare reform and increasing poverty. The risk is that as these issues become more entrenched, demand for support will continue to increase, putting additional pressures on an already-overworked sector. Sudden cuts in public sector spending have forced commissioners to make quick decisions which tend to favour short-term solutions at the risk of creating longer-term and more costly problems.

In 2011-12, 41% of organisations reported having closed services. We are also aware that many organisations closed completely in 2011-12, and were thus unable to complete this year’s survey.

Adding to our sector’s worries is a further foreshadowing of future demand. Of the services that closed, only 13% were purely curative (addressing a particular problem after it has arisen), suggesting that preventative services (working with people to stop them from developing a problem) are being disproportionately closed (32%).

At a time when the government buzzword is Big Society, the reality is that the diversity and strength of London’s communities are being rapidly diluted. Some 45% of respondents could not name a single government policy that had a positive impact on those they worked with. Only 25%, 23% and 22%, respectively, named the localism agenda, Big Society or more commissioning of public services from the independent sector as having a positive impact on their communities. And those figures were matched by similar numbers who thought those policy areas had a negative impact on their communities.

Looking ahead to next year, 88% of respondents believe that their communities will continue to be negatively affected by the economic and policy climate.

So is there any good news? Our sector continues to prove its worth in increasingly difficult conditions. This year saw a steep drop in organisations who said they could not meet increased demand for their services: from 77% in 2011 to just 50% in 2012.

We found evidence that the VCS is taking an increasingly creative and strategic approach to working under pressure. Since last year, there has been a significant increase in long-term strategies for greater resilience – such as collaboration, business planning, and improved partnerships with funders – and far less emphasis on short-term solutions such as redundancies and increased numbers of volunteers.

Of course, it’s not just those in London feeling the squeeze. LVSC’s work with partners around the country shows our findings correlate with wider trends in service closure and increased demand from communities in need.

Our recommendations remain much the same, especially since very few from last year’s survey have been implemented. Across the board, VCS organisations are still reporting problems with policy makers not valuing the VCS and the social and environmental benefits it can bring; and not assessing the impacts, particularly around equality issues, of policy.

Funders are still seen as overly bureaucratic, unaccountable, and averse to working more closely with other funders, while funding processes seem to be creating even greater barriers to VCS organisations with the introduction of larger contracts and payment by results models.

So we can only do what we do – continue making a difference in our communities by providing services that answer local needs, and always with a view to doing more and doing it better.

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