As Scotland's charities struggle to raise funds, 'Big Society' that filled the gaps of austerity is at risk – Scotsman comment

In 2010, in the early days of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, the then Prime Minister David Cameron championed the idea of the ‘Big Society’.

Dundee saw homelessness rise 10 per cent last year and the city has the worst drug death rate in Scotland (Picture: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

The Cabinet Office published a document which explained this would, among other things, see the government “support the creation and expansion of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises, and support these groups to have much greater involvement in the running of public services”.

It was only in hindsight that people began to suspect that Big Society was designed to fill the gaps that opened up as ‘Small Government’ embraced the policies of austerity over the course of the decade.

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At the same time in Scotland, swingeing cuts to local authority budgets – dubbed ‘SNP austerity’ by some – led to service cut-backs and an increased reliance on charities and voluntary groups.

However, the Covid pandemic has now plunged the charity sector into a serious financial crisis. Shops that many rely on to raise funds have been closed, events like marathons have been cancelled, cutting off a major source of sponsorship income, and community fundraising activities have generally been curtailed.

So much so that the British Heart Foundation, the biggest single funder of cardiovascular disease research in the UK, is warning that the rate of progress of “the kind of discoveries which has made such a difference in the last 60 years” may start to slow. Its concerns about funding were echoed by Cancer Research UK and Alzheimer’s Research UK.

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Fears as pioneering homeless project is cut back

Meanwhile in Dundee, a project tackling homelessness and addiction, currently by a third-sector consortium, is to be taken over by the city council in what might initially look like a reversal of the Big Society/austerity approach.

Housing First is based on a pioneering scheme developed in New York in which vulnerable people sleeping rough or living in unsuitable temporary accommodation are given, as the name suggests, “housing first” and then helped to address other problems like alcoholism, drug addictions, trauma and mental health issues.

However, most of its staff have been issued with redundancy notices ahead of the transfer in September with the team of 12 people expected to be replaced by just four or five.

Gordon Sharp, of grassroots project Making Dundee Home, who works closely with the Housing First team, said he was “genuinely fearful of the consequences”. “There is a concern people will fall between the cracks and fall back the way in their lives,” he said.

Dundee has the worst drug-death rate in Scotland, which has by far the worst drug-rate of any country in Europe and about three-and-a-half times the rate for England and Wales.

Charities have always been a major part of our society but, particularly since the 2008 financial crash, they have become vital to its very fabric.

This means that we should all be concerned that they are struggling, because not only does this put at risk what might be seen as ‘traditional’ charitable good works, but also key services that we may have supposed were being funded by the tax-payer.

And, as the Covid pandemic has shown us, we truly are all in it together. If the care for our most vulnerable citizens begins to falter, they will face the immediate consequences but society as a whole will also suffer.

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