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Can small charities survive the Big Society?

With grassroots groups working in the most deprived areas of the UK struggling for funding, keeping hope alive is the main challenge

Nyta Mann
10 May 2012

“If Patchwork didn’t exist, there’d be real problems in the area,” says Michael Bell, project manager of the Patchwork Project. “The busiest place round here is the Job Club!”

The Patchwork Project drop-in centre of the Benwell Young People’s Development Group, is in the west end of Newcastle – one of the UK’s worst towns for young people classified as Neets: Not in Education, Employment or Training.

More than a quarter of Newcastle’s young people are now Neet. These are the young people Patchwork Project aims to help, advocating on behalf of the marginalised and disempowered local people who have left the education system with no qualifications to show for it. Such casualties of economic decline were around long before the current double-dip recessionary problems. Now, however, it’s boom time for Neets.

When George Osborne introduce his June 2010 “emergency budget” the official forecast was that the economy would by now be growing at more than 2.5%, and that unemployment would be falling sharply. Instead, there have been 18 months of no growth and minimal falls in unemployment. Town halls have seen the demands on their services and their workload increase considerably. Meanwhile reductions in local authority budgets mean that their income is dramatically decreasing.

Through all this, the inescapable rules of poverty still apply: people in poorer areas have fewer qualifications, fewer job opportunities and far more chance of dying early or developing a disability. Escape is almost impossible.

“Half the lads round here have got a criminal record,” Michael Bell points out as a group of six teenagers walk past the Project waving and shouting raucous greetings to him through the shop-window front.

“We work with young people involved in anti-social behaviour and some of them are in and out of young offenders’ institutions,” he continues, while exchanging good-natured banter with the group outside before they head off.

“Patchwork is somewhere that welcomes them and gives them positive role models – things they’re unlikely to get anywhere else. We stay in touch and show them there are different activities to get involved with, different circles to move in, a new way forward.

“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But the main thing we do is get people to be independent. We help put people back in touch and connected with others.

“If you have access to wealth and a good bank account, you don’t need help with that – you just tell people in your gym, your local bar, your golf club or wherever else what’s going on.

“But here, if you’ve done something wrong, it’s a much worse story.”

Funding shortfall

Michael is one of Patchwork’s four full-timers. He has worked with the organisation for eight years. Five part-timers make up the rest of the staff. Activities provided by the project include gardening and bee-keeping (on a nearby allotment), bike-riding, playing and watching football, a parent and toddler group and an under-13s group.

The group also organises one-off trips to farms and in the summer holidays organises “residentials” to the Lake District, Teesdale or the Scottish Borders. There’s also a cooks group: one afternoon a week a trainee youth worker gets the group to cook a recipe which they all eat for dinner.

The project has been active on Newcastle’s streets for 10 years and is needed now more than ever. But Patchwork, like many other such organisations is itself feeling the impact of cutbacks and now finds itself under threat, losing funding from some regular grant-giving bodies. For the coming year it has raised £100,000 – leaving a serious shortfall of £50,000.

Organisations allocating grants face more calls on funds, and the smaller charities seeking those funds in turn feel the impact. As a small community-based charity, Patchwork has a low profile but high energy, real street credibility and genuine beneficiary involvement. Michael Bell fears that the bigger charities, with higher profiles, large reserves and highly-paid chief executives, will have greater ability to command the limited resources available.

“We’ve been here ten years and we haven’t failed yet,” he says. “We’ll go to everyone we can for the £50,000 we still need. We’ve had cutbacks in the past, staff going, activities being scaled right back – you name an issue, we’ve had it through the doors.”

Dean McMahon, 24, has worked at Patchwork since he was 17. He runs the “younger lads” group for 14-17-year-olds one evening a week. In common with a few other Patchwork employees, he is also studying for a degree, in his case in Informal Education & Youth Work through the YMCA George Williams College , London, via distance learning.

“I’ve been busy here since I was a young lad, doing good work too,” he says. “This is probably the only place that welcomes the lads and lasses who come here. They can always just come in for a cup of tea, whatever else they’ve got going on in their lives.”

At the drop-in centre they can socialise and see each other, get help filling in job applications, have a tea or coffee and join in whatever activities are going on there. But in addition, at least twice a week, Patchwork staff get out of the project, and seek out Newcastle’s young people in their own streets, parks and hangouts.

As well as finding new people who can benefit from their help, they catch up with others who haven’t been to the project for a while, sometimes meet their families and take the opportunity to say hello to them in person, rather than be just a voice on the telephone.

Fairer allocation

The current economic climate is set to exacerbate long-standing inequalities and persistent poverty in Newcastle. As Bell puts it:

“There are big bits of our country that we’re just leaving behind – they’ve never actually been brought along.”

Such concerns led Newcastle City Council to set up a Fairness Commission with Newcastle University in Summer 2011. Its members includes think-tankers, charity heads, academics and other local figures, all of whom are giving their time for nothing. The Commission is intended to help the council make fair decisions about planning and resource allocation in times of severe austerity in a city where one in three children already lives in poverty. Their final report is due mid-Summer 2012.

What does the Patchwork team think would make the big difference to the lives of the young people they are helping now?

“Employment,” says Bell without hesitation. “It’s not wrong to not have money, but in a society or community that needs it – like this one – money is crucial.

“My fear is that the very small charities are in danger of disappearing. And once they’ve gone, they’ve gone. I don’t think we should deprive people of hope.”

This is the first of two articles from Newcastle on austerity and small charities. Next: Will Benson literally takes a children's charity on to the streets

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