Warning that Norfolk voluntary groups could go under in ‘crunch year’

Brian Horner, chief executive of Voluntary Norfolk.

Brian Horner, chief executive of Voluntary Norfolk. - Credit: Archant

A warning has been issued that volunteers who provide a lifeline for hundreds of people in Norfolk are facing 'a crunch year' to keep their groups running in cash-strapped times.

Against a backdrop of cuts and changes in funding from Norfolk County Council, some voluntary groups and charities could go under in the next 12 months, the boss of an umbrella organisation for the organisations has warned.

Brian Horner, chief executive of Voluntary Norfolk, said many groups had survived up to now by drawing on their reserves, but that the well was on the brink of running dry in some cases.

Norfolk County Council has slashed its budget for prevention services from £12.9m in 2010/11 to £7m for the next 12 months and that has meant less cash for voluntary groups. The council has also switched away from block-paying for services from voluntary groups, with people eligible for social care instead given personal budgets, giving them the opportunity to decide which services to pay for.

And that, Mr Horner, said, has been very challenging for voluntary groups, because of the uncertainty over whether people would choose to make use of their services.

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He warned: 'This year could be quite a crunch year. A lot of groups have responded positively, but a lot are living on their reserves and they are considerably less than the local authority's reserves.

'A lot of these groups are experiencing pressure not just from the county council, but also because there is less funding outside of the council.

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'It's not that there's not funding out there, but there's a lack of capacity in those groups to be able to get access to it. One of the problems the voluntary sector has had is that it's been a fairly traumatic time.

'No one would dispute there are benefits from personal budgets, but the destabilisation from the removal of core funding has created uncertainty. And they need to show they are sustainable to get access to other funds. Some will not have got the level of reserves to demonstrate they have thought beyond 12 months ahead and it really has become challenging.'

Norfolk County Council used to have contracts with 65 voluntary groups, funded largely through block contracts, but started changing that two years ago. In that time, of the 65 services, five of them have chosen to close. County Hall officers said in three of the cases, the trustees closed the group before the changes, one closed because the running costs were too high and one because the main trustee became ill.

Officers said voluntary groups had responded by attracting private customers, such as people who are not eligible for social care but want to pay for services, and through innovative fundraising.

A survey carried out by Voluntary Norfolk, along with Great Yarmouth Borough Council last year, found that 60pc of groups had been forced to draw on their reserves and 57pc said their funding had been cut.

Labour's Sue Whitaker, cabinet member for social services at Norfolk County Council, said: 'A lot of the voluntary sector have felt the cold wind of whatever right up their kilts.

'Some of these groups are very small and exist on a shoestring. In some ways I was pleasantly surprised to see that of 65 groups only five were caused to close, because I thought it would be more than that.

'The voluntary sector these days does a lot of work which used to be done by the county council and it's probably an unequal partnership.

'We both need each other. Having worked for a few and been a trustee, I know what a struggle it can be to keep their heads above water.

'The voluntary sector and ourselves need to work together, because we do need each other.'

Roger Smith, Conservative councillor for Henstead, said: 'It has been a traumatic time for voluntary groups and charities. When I visited one which provides day care services they were responding well, but only because they had a good board with financial nous, otherwise they would have been all at sea.

'We do rely on these voluntary organisations to deliver a large amount of our services.'

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