It’s just as well life doesn’t imitate art all the time, otherwise VCS staff throughout South West England would probably be sat with a pencil up either nostril and a pair of underpants on their heads. And, given the apparent unwillingness across government to accept the severity of problems in the sector, they’d soon be joined by their peers across the rest of the country.
For those not familiar with the adventures of Edmund Blackadder, it was one of his many ploys to escape the Great War.
A new report from South West Forum on the ever-deepening funding crisis that is engulfing sector brought that particular episode to mind. Not so much for the pencils and pants but the quote from Blackadder that preceded it: ‘This is a crisis. A large crisis. In fact, if you’ve got a moment, it’s a 12-storey crisis with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour porterage, and an enormous sign on the roof, saying "This Is a Large Crisis".’
The frustration felt by the forum and those it represents must be unbearable. There are only so many ways you can relay the same message to the powers that be. One response to the report’s findings - from a senior official - amounted to something along the lines of ‘oh well, the sector’s always in a funding crisis’. Perhaps it is because the VCS has survived various funding problems in the past that it’s assumed it’ll weather this particular storm.
Evidence from the southwest suggests this time it’s terminal. Shrinking European funding, the hiatus between ChangeUp finishing and Capacitybuilders starting, local government cutbacks in preparation for a lean comprehensive spending review, the NHS crisis - all are having a predictably negative impact. But their cumulative effect could be catastrophic for organisations providing vital services, often in deprived communities. While noises from Whitehall have been promising - the new third sector strategy and freeing up unclaimed assets are just two recent examples of the increasing focus on the VCS - the wheels of government may well be moving too slowly for many.
Ministers have made much of their intention to help transform the voluntary and community sector and hand it a greater role in service delivery. The sad reality is unless action is taken quickly at a national, regional and local level to address this crisis, many of those best positioned to fulfil this role will no longer exist.
Austin Macauley, editor, New Start Online magazine