Westminster cuts ‘will kill off Big Society’

Voluntary sector funding slashed as council cuts to budget are confirmed

WESTMINSTER’S Big Society will be put “at risk” with more than �1million slashed from voluntary sector budgets over the next two years.

The council approved its budget on Wednesday with �630,000 of grants slashed from the adult and community services budget and �425,000 from the children’s services budget – a total reduction of up to 25 per cent.

Voluntary Action Westminster chief executive Bernard Collier said: “We are sad to learn about the extent of the cuts but we had feared something similar because of Westminster’s unique financial crisis.

“Our main concern is for the weaker and vulnerable members of the community whose lives will be affected because voluntary organisations will no longer be funded to support them.

“Our secondary concern is that strong voluntary organisations who currently deliver the Big Society will be damaged by the scale of the cuts but we will be trying to help them to minimise this.”

The cuts are part of Westminster’s efforts to save �60million over the next two years.

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The council has experienced a �25million drop in funding from central government while its reserves have plummeted from �72million in June 2009 to �11.4million in November 2010.

Arts and culture will see a reduction of �169,337, which equates to 34 per cent of its current budget, while older people’s grants will be reduced by �94,952 (25 per cent) and adult learning by �48,169 (75 per cent). The physical disabilities budget will be cut by 90 per cent.

Westminster Labour group leader, Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, said: “Voluntary groups are the beating heart of the local community but now Westminster’s real Big Society has had more than �1million of support axed.

“How can the Conservatives expect us to believe that their Big Society slogans are anything more than hot air when the council is cutting its support to voluntary groups by 25 per cent?

“Support for voluntary groups helping older people, the vulnerable, the arts and children is all being cut back massively at the same time as the Conservatives say they want to encourage volunteers.”

The council says its budget will see 80 per cent of its cuts focused on reducing bureaucracy, red tape and middle managers in order to protect core services. A total of 450 council jobs are set to be axed over the next two years.

However, Cllr Dimoldenberg says 75 per cent of the council’s cuts will hit frontline services.

Cllr Steve Summers, cabinet member for communities, said: “We remain committed to working with voluntary and community groups in Westminster and recognise the vital role they can play in delivering services.

“This is reflected in our continued support and funding of local voluntary groups to the tune of almost �4million, in addition to the �38million of contracted services the sector delivers on behalf of the council.

“However, in this new climate of austerity and government cuts we have had to make some tough decisions across all council departments, including funding for the voluntary sector, and we can’t do everything we have done previously.”