Voluntary groups fear for existence as they face funding axe

CROYDON IN CRISIS: As well as the 500-plus jobs being cut following the council’s financial crash, there are hundreds more working in Croydon’s community groups, in full- and part-time posts as well as volunteers, whose future is uncertain as officials look to implement savings of nearly £1m from the voluntary sector. ELLA HOPKINS reports

After a covid-tough year, staff and volunteers at Citizens Advice Croydon are worried for its very future as bankrupt Croydon Council plans to pull the plug on funding to the voluntary sector.

The council must try to balance its budget for 2020-2021, despite having a cash shortfall of £66million. Under proposals out for consultation until the end of this month, Croydon Council has identified more than £800,000-worth of savings from the community and voluntary sector, money which hundreds of groups in the borough such as Citizens Advice depend upon just to continue to provide their services, often to the most vulnerable in society.

In its 80th year in 2020, Citizens Advice Croydon was forced to shut its offices on Portland Road in March due to coronavirus, but the service has continued to reach thousands of clients via phone, email and webchat since.

“To close our doors was a big moment,” says Claire Keetch, the chief executive of Croydon Citizens Advice.

“The Citizens Advice service has been a feature of high streets for a very long time. Even though we’ve always offered phone services, when people think about Citizens Advice, they think about that door on the high street,

“We turned around our services within days. All staff were at home with their laptops, ready to take calls and we’ve been doing it that way ever since. The team has adapted remarkably well. We’ve shown a real commitment to keep going and supporting people in Croydon who need advice.”

The Citizens Advice centre’s 14 staff and 25 volunteers have had to adapt to ever-changing policies and a new client base.

“Citizen Advice has always been a reflection of the social and economic environment that we live in,” Keetch says.

“The vast majority of the enquiries that have come to us since the first lockdown have been about welfare benefits and employment issues, as some people are accessing benefits for the first time in their lives and with many redundancies and people furloughed form their jobs.

“We’ve seen a slightly different demographic of clients this year, with a greater proportion of our clients younger and in-work.

“But still, many of our clients don’t have access to the internet or as good digital skills as other parts of the population. In a world where we’re offering services that need digital access, telephony skills, as well as language barriers are a challenge. We’re working hard to ensure we are reaching as many as we can and reaching those that find digital access a little trickier.

“This has also been a very volatile period in terms of policy change.

Claire Keetch and her team have had to deal with rapidly changing policies and benefits

“A few months ago, one of our housing specialists was dealing with somebody who was being threatened with eviction. The housing legislation changed twice within the course of dealing with that one client.

“We’ve got support through the Citizens Advice network to ensure we’re up to date on what the latest changes are.”

The pandemic is not the only challenge that Citizens Advice Croydon is facing.

Citizens Advice receives funding from the council’s Community Fund, which is under threat of a cut of £400,000. The council also outlines cuts of £100,000 from its small grant budget and £246,000 from rent subsidies, most of which support local charities.

“The council’s financial situation is of great concern,” Keetch says.

“That is a lot of money to come out of support to the voluntary sector. I’m concerned about what that means for the sector as a whole and us in particular.

“None of us know how those savings are going to be made across individual organisations.

“Citizens Advice Croydon is quite small anyway for a borough the size of Croydon so any kind of reduction in services would have an impact at a time when advice services are needed more than ever.

“As a nation, we are looking at a very uncertain world because of the pandemic and the tough economic outlook ahead, plus the impact of Brexit. The position in Croydon is exacerbated by the local funding issue.

“In 2019-2020, for every pound invested in Citizens Advice Croydon, we generated £25.42 in benefits for our clients.

“Those are the kind of returns that Croydon as a borough needs more of, not less of.”

The public consultation on the council’s saving proposals runs until January 24.

How to contact Citizens Advice Croydon:
Freephone Adviceline: 0800 144 8848 and Text Phone: 18001 0800 144 8884
Help to Claim line (for Universal Credit): Freephone: 0800 144 8444
By email, Click here

Read more: Council survey on cuts tries to pass the buck to residents

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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