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Charities underpin the UK’s social safety net as cost of living crisis bites

The Isle of Sheppey at the Thames Estuary is one of Britain’s most deprived areas and like millions of people living on low incomes, its residents struggle with the rising cost of food and fuel. All are preparing for even more difficult times this winter.

Early last week, early in the morning, in a parking lot near a pub on the island, a small group of locals with shopping bags waited for the arrival of the “Sheppey Support Bus”, a mobile community supermarket offering surplus food and free fruit and vegetables for a Subscription costs of € 3.50 per week.

“It’s a bit of a lifesaver,” says David Fuller, 66, who lives on a monthly pension of less than £1,000.

“Everything has gone up – food, gas, electricity bills – but the pay has stayed the same. Three years ago I didn’t need something like that, but now I do.”

It’s an increasingly well-known story as the use of the food bank increases in the UK. But the sponsors’ logos on the side of the double-decker Sheppey Support Bus tell a less well-understood story of how the charities and voluntary sector are now an integral part of the UK’s social safety net.

David Fuller
David Fuller lives on a monthly pension of less than £1,000. ‘It’s a bit of a lifesaver,’ he says of the Sheppey community mobile supermarket © Anna Gordon/FT

After a decade of austerity that saw local government cut by a third in real terms and the value of many social benefits plummeted to “historic lows,” according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, charities are playing an increasing role in helping people get around. to meet.

But the charitable supplement only comes in areas like Sheppey that are lucky enough to have a volunteer network. Too many others are falling behind, voluntary sector experts warn, and the outlook is bleak as the Bank of England predicts a protracted recession and worst pressure on living standards in 60 years.

The Sheppey Support Bus was the foundation of the Oasis Charitable Trust which runs a local academy school. The trust brought together a network of donors to provide the service, including charities such as the Salvation Army and Feeding Britain, private sector supermarket chain Wm Morrison and local parish and city councils.

Lynne Clifton, the Salvation Army officer at Sheppey, said the bus also appears to provide enveloping services, including debt counseling, literacy assistance and mental health services.

“Recently a regular came in, and I could tell she didn’t look very normal,” she said. “When we heard something she burst into tears and pulled out a huge gas bill worth £2,000. We were able to help read the meter readings and deal with her energy company.”

Lynne Clifton
The Salvation Army’s Lynne Clifton said the bus also offers services such as debt counseling © Anna Gordon/FT

Everyone involved in the Sheppey Support Bus enthusiastically praises its work helping families who can no longer cope, often after falling deeper into debt due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But experts warn that relying on the voluntary sector to pick up the pieces will overburden it and entrench deep-seated inequality in the UK.

Maddy Desforges, chief executive of the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action, whose members support about 200,000 local charities and volunteer groups across the country, said the sector is now increasingly “replenishing” for the state.

“The state relies on volunteers in a way that I don’t think helps,” she said. “So of course volunteers stepped in during the pandemic, but one of my concerns is that the state is now turning to volunteers to support the services.”

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The first challenge of relying on charities to fill the gaps left by government is that the same cost of living crisis that is driving demand on the sector is also hampering its ability to raise funds. Charities are also plagued by the same economic headwinds as businesses: rising utility bills, tight labor markets and inflation that erodes the true value of donations.

Analysis by Pro Bono Economics, a think tank that supports charities, showed that even before the current crisis, the sector became increasingly dependent on public fundraising as the value of government contracts declined.

And the cost of living is already impacting donations, which totaled £10.7 billion last year. A regular examination by the Charities Aid Foundation found that in the first quarter of 2022, 4.9 million fewer people had donated in the past 12 months, compared to before the pandemic.

But experts warn that the more fundamental issue of increased reliance on social welfare charities is that it anchors the risk of inequality, as many of the poorest areas in the country are least well supported by charities.

parliamentary Research looking at England’s 225 most “backward” neighborhoods, it was found that people in those areas received an average of £7.77 in national charitable grants per head, well below the national average of £12.23. Half received less than £5.

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“We know that the charitable sector is much stronger in wealthier areas,” said Lord Gus O’Donnell, former cabinet secretary and chairman of Pro Bono Economics. “In poorer places, the chance of community aid through the charitable sector is much smaller, and the amount of giving is lower, so you’re in a vicious circle, reinforcing inequality.”

Desforges is also concerned. “You rely on those people who are already living difficult lives, so it’s almost the opposite of a higher level,” she said, referring to Boris Johnson’s flagship policy to reduce regional inequalities.

The outgoing prime minister was driven in part by a sharp shift in seats to his Conservative party from Labor in the poorest parts of the UK in the 2019 general election.

Johnson has tried to capitalize on the community spirit that emerged during the pandemic. He commissioned a report from Conservative MP Danny Kruger on how charities can help raise the standard. But as the UK waits for a new prime minister next month, there is widespread skepticism in the sector about the government’s commitment to reducing inequality.

The government said it recognized regional disparities, which is why it was “working full steam” with its leveling agenda, while also offering a £37bn package of emergency aid to households to reduce the immediate cost of living. to deal with.

“By investing in the areas that need it most, improving schools, supporting regeneration and generating better paying jobs, we will improve the lives of the poorest in areas in the UK,” it added.

However, Kruger said the next prime minister urgently needed to tackle the issue more aggressively, perhaps by using some of the nearly £1 billion in dormant assets in the UK financial system to donate a community wealth fund. “Solving this is about money and power: money for social infrastructure and power for local places,” he added.

Will Tanner, director of Onward, an influential center-right think tank that has helped shape the equalization agenda, said empowering local volunteers was crucial because they were often better at delivering the services people needed than central or local government.

“While we should be concerned about the distribution of that support, that is not an argument for not encouraging such activities where they exist,” he said. “The question is, ‘Can it be seeded and encouraged in areas where it is currently lacking?'”

Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis Trust, agreed, but said the government should recognize that to foster more collaborations like the one at Sheppey, it needs to work with charities in a more equal way. “We need a new civil contract between the government and the voluntary sector; one built on respect and trust rather than service,” he added.

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Another example of grassroots empowerment can be found in Northwood, the most deprived part of Kirkby, a satellite town of Liverpool. The area is one of the 150 poorest parts of the UK, having been selected to receive £1 million each over 10 years as part of a £200 million National Lottery funded initiative called Big Local.

In Kirkby, the money funded Northwood Together, a community project that has supported everything from a “pop-up” thrift store to food and cooking classes.

Community development manager Lisa Cover said the pandemic has hit the poorest families hardest as many depended on the gray economy or part-time jobs not covered by government job support schemes.

The group’s food supply, which is supported by donations from local football club Morrisons and Liverpool, is open all day. And – unlike some local government services – it comes with no strings attached.

“We started getting a lot of discreet questions, asking ‘Do you have to be on benefits to come?’ and we explain, ‘No, come down,’ said Cover. “Now you often see working people who can’t handle it.”

A group of Northwood Together board members, who are all local people, said the Big Local scheme has been invaluable to families on the brink of poverty now fearing the coming winter, with average annual fuel bills expected to increase early next year. than £4,000.

Ally Middleton, chairman of the board, said government aid of up to £1,200 for the poorest households with their energy bills “won’t feel like hitting the sides” for households already in debt.

She added that many children went hungry during holidays without school meals. She remembered a boy attending an event who quietly came up to him after eating his hot dog and asked if he could bring something for his brother who was home and also hungry.

As in Sheppey, the team of volunteers in Northwood are full of enthusiasm for what they have achieved, although they recognize that this is necessary due to a wage and social security system that leaves too many people, including a few in work, unaccounted for. .

“It might just be a band-aid, but at least we’re preventing people from bleeding to death,” Middleton said.

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