Concerns that austerity will hit the young first

Photo: Heather Bishop

Voluntary organisations in Lewisham have warned that vital services for young people and children could be worst affected by cuts to council spending power.

Following the coalition government’s announcement on Monday, Lewisham will face a 6.5 per cent reduction in spending power which could result in vital youth services being closed.

Martin Howie, director of Voluntary Action Lewisham said: “It’s too early to tell how exactly the cut to the local authority budget will affect services in the borough, but our biggest concern is children and young people services.”

“The money for these voluntary organisations came from central funding provided by the previous government. However, this funding will be coming to an end in March.”

The Ravensbourne Project, a Saturday youth club and day care service provider for disabled children and the Young People’s Health Project could also be affected by the cuts.

According to the Index of Multiple Deprivation, Lewisham is the 39th most deprived local Authority in England. It has one of the highest levels of teenage pregnancy and an above average proportion of people with low levels of literacy and numeracy.

At the start of the week, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles stated that most councils will face cuts to their local authority budget. Lewisham’s cut is greater than the 4.4 per cent average seen across the country.

Lewisham Council are currently analysing the effects of the cuts on their services and the impact it will have on the area.

Lewisham Deptford MP Joan Ruddock criticised the Local Government Finance Settlement, saying it will have a “devastating” effect in Lewisham. She said that the plans were intended to roll back the state and pass blame for cuts to local government.

Ruddock also suggested that Labour councils across the country have been disproportionately hit by the cuts.

“Some of the most deprived are hardest hit and certainly not Tory controlled.”

Whilst some councils are still deciding whether to implement cuts, Lewisham agreed its first phase of savings plans last month amidst angry scenes at the town hall in Catford. The council decided to pass through cuts totalling £16m.

Although the council deferred final decisions on library closures until early next year, Mayor Sir Steve Bullock has called on community organisations to run local libraries threatened by closure, as the council attempts to save around £60m in the next three years.

Sir Steve and his Labour council’s call for greater community involvement matches the Conservative party’s ‘Big Society’ plans which have been turned into law by the Localism Bill, also announced on Monday.

The ‘Big Society’ idea aims to redistribute power from the state and councils to individuals and community organisations and foster a culture of volunteerism. Under the Localism bill, locals and voluntary organisations will be able to buy and run community assets like shops, pubs and libraries if the council decides to sell it.

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations welcomed the bill as “another important part of the jigsaw for the voluntary and community sector,” which would give people “a greater say in how things are run at local level.”

In Lewisham, there are currently around 1000 voluntary associations and it is expected that they will play a bigger role in the provision of services as the council cuts back on its funding.

However, with cuts also expected in the voluntary sector, Voluntary Action Lewisham, which supports and represents the work of community organisations in the borough, says that the removal of funding clashes with the government’s ‘Big Society’ idea.

Howie said: “This is part of the nonsense that is happening. We want to get voluntary organisations doing more, but if the government decreases voluntary sector funding, it doesn’t make sense.”

“The time scale and cuts to the sector are out of sync, we need investment in the short term so that when council finances decrease or cease, voluntary organisations can survive and provide good services in the long term.”

Howie also criticised the novelty of the ‘Big Society’ concept, stating that Lewisham’s voluntary organisations have been fully involved with the community years before the Conservative party took on its ethos.

“We’re not against the Big Society, but to say it’s a new concept is laughable from a Lewisham perspective. The truth is that Lewisham has been an innovative borough for a long time, with the Mayor and council working with the voluntary sector. It’s been a good partnership.”

“The government is spinning this Big Society idea, it’s not new at all in Lewisham.”

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