Lewisham council plans to cut £800K from voluntary sector budget

By Grainne Cuffe

Starving the voluntary sector of £800,000 in proposed cuts “feels difficult”, a council boss has said.

The council needs to cut £40 million from its budget in the next three years, £24 million of those next year.

It has spent £68 million on the Covid-19 pandemic so far, which Government funding to date has not completely covered.

Its draft cut proposals include increasing funeral charges, reducing local assemblies, cutting the grants programme for the voluntary and community sector, and scrapping discretionary free travel for vulnerable people.

A second round of proposals, which council bosses have warned will be “painful and impactful”, are due to be published in January.

The approved main grants programme, which funds the voluntary sector in Lewisham, needs to be renewed in 2022 – the plan is to cut the scheme by £800,000 then, subject to a public consultation.

The figure would cut the programme by a third.

The plan is to have a single front door for residents following the “success of the community hub response”.

“The key areas of focus will be identified through the demand mapping of the front door either via phone calls, web enquiries or direct service use.

“This is to ensure that all funding is targeted at areas of need rather than funding services due to historic patterns of provision,” according to council documents.

But the council admits that any cut to the sector is a risk, while “it is likely that the intended service model may mean that very localised and smaller organisations find it hard to bid for grants”.

Discussing the cut at Lewisham’s safer, stronger communities select committee meeting on Tuesday (December 1), the cabinet member for the community sector said he was “grappling” with it.

Tom Brown, director of community services, said it felt “difficult starving the voluntary sector” and praised its “fabulous response” to the pandemic.

“But there has been an acceptance that not all of the voluntary responded in the same way as some parts of it did.

“As we are having to make some very deep and painful cuts to other places in the council, we have to acknowledge that we would have to take some money out of the voluntary sector grants.

“It does feel difficult that we are starving the voluntary sector, but we believe that we will still be able to fund them to a level that they can be sustainable,” Mr Brown said.

Cllr Jonathan Slater, cabinet member for the community sector, said the voluntary sector has “played a blinder with its response to Covid”.

“Because of the main grants programme, because of our relationships, because of the work of Lewisham Local, we managed to set up a Covid-19 hub response in a matter of days,” he said.

The sector supported over 10,000 shielding people by feeding them throughout the pandemic, making over 43,000 calls.

“This proposal was something that I’ve been grappling with as well, but some of the lessons we’ve learned from the Covid-19 response are going to inform how we fund the voluntary sector going forward from 2022,” Cllr Slater said.

He said the council now knows the location of those shielding, as well as their ethnic and social economic background.

The committee agreed four referrals to the public accounts select committee, due to meet on Thursday (December 3).

One asks that the impact of a proposed cut on users of a service, on the staff of a service, on the service overall, and the cumulative impact of a cut on Lewisham as a whole should be included in upcoming budget reports.

Another recommends that service equalities impact and human resources impact assessments be carried out that consider the cuts “on a cumulative basis”.

Another recommended that the likely impact of proposed cuts on people with multiple, complex needs be considered in more detail.

The last suggested that cuts be looked at to ensure they don’t “have a detrimental effect” on the achievement of other cuts.

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