Cuts 'destroying big society' concept, says CSV head

media captionDame Elisabeth Hoodless is retiring from the Community Service Volunteers (CSV) after 36 years

Cuts are "destroying" volunteering and undermining the government's "big society" vision, a charity boss says.

Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, who is retiring from the Community Service Volunteers (CSV) after 36 years, said there was no "strategic plan".

She told the Times "massive" council cuts would make it harder for people to do more in their communities.

Minister Francis Maude said there would be a £100m transition fund to help charities hit by cuts within months.

And the government says it will be investing £470m over the next four years in charities and voluntary groups to give them independence from state money.

But Dame Elisabeth, the outgoing executive director of Britain's largest volunteering charity, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The cuts that are being imposed on local government and the health service are taking place now.

"So there are a lot of very worthwhile programmes - for example volunteers working in child protection as promoted by the minister for children - which are now under threat of closure."

She also told Today that funding for some projects came at the expense of others: "It's about one hand not appreciating what the other hand's doing and not getting the decisions made in a timely fashion."

Volunteer targets

She said volunteering should be introduced as part of national curriculum projects in schools and she backed a US idea that ties the funding of public bodies with the number of volunteers recruited.

In an interview in the Times she said: "We know we need to save money, but there are other ways of saving money without destroying the volunteer army."

Her comments follow a decision last week by Liverpool to abandon a "big society" pilot project because the Labour council claimed cuts were undermining the voluntary groups supposed to take over some services.

Justin Davis Smith, chief executive of the charity Volunteering England, told the BBC he supported Dame Elisabeth's remarks.

While he supported the ambitions of the Big Society, he said there was a "disconnect" between that and the reality, where numerous organisations were "having their capacity to deliver, to recruit more, to train, to support their volunteers taken away from them".

Asked about the criticism that there was no strategic plan, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude told the BBC: "We're not going to dictate from the centre what every local authority should do. They must be accountable to their local communities."

He said three quarters of voluntary organisations got no state funding so would not be affected by council cuts.

For the others he conceded there was a "timing gap" - amid criticism that cuts were coming in before the £470m was invested - adding: "That's why we've introduced the transition fund which is actually getting money out of the door and into the hands of voluntary organisations just in the forthcoming months."

'Big opportunities'

That would be "at least £100m" and would help in the short term, he said, adding that a "big society" social investment bank was being set up and he hoped it would be working in the next few months.

But he said there were "big opportunities for voluntary organisations coming down the track" - including outside organisations being invited to win contracts for the government's "work programme" to get unemployed people into sustainable jobs.

"We're very keen there should be a big amount of that work available for voluntary and charitable organisations and social enterprises so big opportunities to raise revenue in a sustainable way, from what the government is doing."

Mr Cameron's "big society" initiative was one of the central themes in the Conservative election manifesto last year. He has said community groups should be able to run post offices, libraries, transport services and shape housing projects - something he believes would be a "big advance for people power".

But various charity figures have warned that it could be undermined by the pace of spending cuts.

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, at an event in Nottingham, said government money was needed to make a voluntary civic society work, otherwise it was "just a lottery".

"And if you're lucky enough to have someone who will volunteer, fine, but if you're not, hard luck, and that's not a fair society," he said.

"I think governments have got a proper role to play in order to support that vision of an inclusive bottom-up society. I fear that what David Cameron is doing at the moment will take us in the opposite direction of what will work."

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