Colin Thompson ought to be the epitome of David Cameron’s Big Society. He drives elderly members of Croydon’s Afro-Caribbean community to and from activities run by the Croydon African Caribbean Family Organisation, or CACFO.
In the back of his van, he drives elderly women on outings to Calais, Margate, a week in Butlins. Tuesdays means exercise classes. On Wednesdays they go to the park in Tooting for lunch. The activities help the elderly remain active and social.
The young also benefit. CACFO runs a school for expelled children to try and reform them. With qualified teachers and a headmaster, the school runs five days a week to work with 10-15 children each year. “Some of them are unruly, but when they leave they’re beginning to behave themselves,” said Colin.
CACFO has been running for nearly 20 years, relying on public funding to carry out its work, but now a question mark hangs over its future. Croydon’s Tory-run council has slashed funding for community organisations across the south London borough by two thirds, while voting to increase the allowances paid to council boss Mike ‘Fat Cat’ Fisher and his cabinet by up to 34 percent.
As a result, organisations like CACFO are fighting to survive. Opposition Labour councillors say that money has been withdrawn from 41 out of 47 voluntary organisations.
The Together in Waddon community project, the Jagruti Asian Women’s Group and, perhaps most controversially, Croydon’s Rape Crisis Centre are all losing their funding.
Sharfin Dewan works for the Bangladesh Welfare Association, which is also set to lose its funding. The group runs a variety of activities for all members of the Bangladeshi community in Croydon, including dance classes, Arabic lessons and boxing training for young people.
Sharfin attended a protest by affected community groups at a council meeting on Monday, as Labour councillors unsuccessfully moved a motion condemning the cuts.
“It’s a very good organisation for the Asian community,” Sharfin explained. “This is the one place where you can go with confidence because you know people. It’s the only place for our Bengali people where you know you can get help.”
There were too many protesters to fit inside the public gallery at the council meeting, but those who got in were left bemused and increasingly agitated by some grotesquely archaic procedures before – an hour in – discussion finally turned to the cuts.
Labour councillor Alison Butler attacked the council leadership’s claims that the national public spending squeeze had forced it to cut funding for the voluntary sector.
“The people can see that when it comes down to it, it is all about choice,” said Cllr Butler. “It’s about priorities and what you lot choose to put first.” Cllr Fisher’s pay rise has been especially inflammatory, while Labour councillors also point to an expensive scheme to build new luxury council headquarters with public money.
The Conservatives, for their part, insist that they will make £350,000 available for charities in difficulty – a small proportion of the total funding cut – while moving to commissioning specific services directly from the voluntary sector. Cabinet member Vidhi Mohan told the meeting that the council’s plan to commission services from the voluntary sector was part of the national government’s Big Society agenda.
But – quite apart from the uncertainty over how much money will actually be available for voluntary groups – Croydon’s plan to commission services flies square in the face of the supposed principles of the Big Society.
Rory Stewart, the worldly Kabul diplomat-turned-Tory backbencher, wrote in The Times this week (subscription required) about how local people in Eden Valley have got on with the job of providing local services for themselves, with minimal council interference:
‘The people of Morland should not need to answer 15 questions and pay £50 for a permit to step in their own river to repair their own weir. If Ravenstonedale wants to build a bicycle path for half the price quoted by the county council contractor, why not? Why must Caldbeck spend weeks disguising simple worthwhile projects in fashionable jargon on donor application forms?’
Eden Valley, which lies within Stewart’s constituency, is one of the four ‘test beds’ for the Big Society (whose £60m total national funding is less than what one single council – Lewisham – is cutting over the next three years). In Stewart’s eyes, the benefit of the Big Society is that it allows local people to judge their own requirements, rather than relying on diktat from Town Hall.
Compare and contrast with Croydon. While clearly its community groups require more public funding than the self-help outfits of Eden Valley, it is they who have been deciding what services their own communities need. CACFO judges that its elderly people would benefit from weekly exercise classes; the Bangladesh Welfare Association decides that boxing classes would be a good idea for local children.
Now Croydon is ditching all of this and replacing it with the top-down diktat of council commissioning. Town Hall bosses will decide what Croydon’s communities need, rather than the communities themselves. Cue reams of form-filling and box-ticking for those organisations that seek council funds as Fat Cat Fisher assumes the mantle of the All Seeing Eye.
Missing: the Big Society. Last seen getting mugged by Tory councillors, somewhere in South London…