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By Sophie Yarker, Kirsty Bagnall, Tine Buffel, Patty Doran, Camilla Lewis and Chris Phillipson

The Manchester Urban Ageing Research Group, the University of Manchester

COVID-19 has forced us all to rethink how to maintain social connections in the neighbourhoods where we live and work. For the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector (VCSE), this has meant a rapid rethink in how to provide services whilst observing social distancing guidelines. In this blog, we discuss the challenges the sector is facing and suggests an alternative approach to providing support.

Whilst the demand on organisations continues to increase, their ability to respond to COVID-19 has been  substantially reduced due to  cuts in public sector funding, which has reduced or disappeared over the years. Research  suggests that smaller charities (with annual incomes of between £100,000 and £500,000) lost nearly half  of their income from local government  in the five years following the 2008 financial crash. On top of cuts to their own funding, the social infrastructure that supports the third sector has also been under attack. Some examples include: 12,000 public spaces  sold in the past decade  by UK Councils ; the closure of libraries (800 since 2010); the privatisation of leisure centres; and the decline of local shopping centres in many areas. All of of these developments have led to the decline of spaces vital for social participation. The present crisis has further revealed inequalities in the extent to which neighbourhoods are able to respond to the challenges arising from COVID-19. The presence of mutual aid networks, for example, has emerged overwhelmingly in places with  strong neighbourhood networks and a thriving social economy. Such communities are much better equipped to develop responses,  as compared to those with less capacity to mobilise resources and reach out to vulnerable groups. The COVID-19 crisis is thus amplifying existing inequalities between poorer and richer neighbourhoods.

Reducing social isolation in a time of social distancing

VCSE organisations are a vital part of the social infrastructure of neighbourhoods providing places of support, advice and social contact. As such, the sector is particularly important for older people, who are often more reliant on their immediate locality for both social participation and support. VCSE organisations have increasingly been tasked with mitigating social isolation and loneliness for older people by providing opportunities for social interaction with others. The question, then, is how can initiatives aimed at reducing social isolation continue to be delivered in the context of social distancing?

Our research into tackling social isolation and building age-friendly communities in Greater Manchester has  identified several innovative ways community organisations are responding to the challenge. The majority of Age UK branches, for example, have moved their services online or by telephone, with branches trialling new approaches to addressing social isolation. Infrastructure organisations, such as local community and voluntary services and organisations, whose operations are based around food, have moved towards direct services, co-ordinating and providing food parcels, and managing volunteers. And ethnic minority organisations, such as Europia, have developed informative videos for a number of communities for whom English is not their first language, and would therefore miss out on important information about COVID-19. In many cases, this extends the vital work organisations have already been doing to reach the most marginalised groups in our communities.

Unequal impact

Not only do the uneven impacts of austerity challenge the capacity of communities to respond to the immediate crisis of providing essentials such as food, medicines, support and advice, there is a significant risk that these inequalities become even further entrenched as the community and voluntary sector starts to re-orientate itself towards a future of working with social distancing.

One of the most pressing issues concerns the loss of funding. Back in March, the #EveryDayCounts campaign, led by NCVO, calculated that the charity sector could miss out on a minimum of £4.3bn of income between April and June 2020. At the beginning of April, the government announced a £750 million package to support the work of charities during the current crisis. This support, whilst welcome, is unlikely to be accessible to large parts of the sector. Many smaller organisations are likely to miss out, despite the injection of funding.

Over 80% have an income below £100,000; those with an income over £1 million are fewer but account for more than four-fifths of the sector’s income. There is a  substantial risk that emergency COVID-19 funding will disproportionately go to larger voluntary organisations, with concerns those with the most resources will apply first and take most of the money allocated. The latest State of the Sector survey carried out in 2017, showed that 46% of VCSE organisations in Greater Manchester have less than three months of running costs in reserves, a major concern given the depth of the crisis facing communities.

An alternative approach

We have already seen many within the VCSE sector using emergency funding and reserves to rise to the challenge of adapting existing projects in response to the challenges posed by COVID-19, from coffee mornings moving online, telephone-supported digital inclusion courses, and craft clubs introducing postal delivery of materials, to allotment groups making adaptations around social distancing and hygiene measures allowing them to return.

However, there is a further, more complicated challenge in creating means of new social connection, rather than adapting what already exists. Reaching and supporting those who do not already have connections within their local communities is made all the more difficult by the pandemic. Organisations will undoubtedly require financial support but this is unlikely to be sufficient to meet the challenges facing voluntary groups – especially those working in poorer communities. Based on findings from our research in Greater Manchester, we argue an alternative approach is required, one which allows organisations to test new ways of working, invest in skills and leadership, and share learning about new ideas.

Offering smaller pots of money for investment (up to £2000) can encourage organisations to take more ‘risks’ and to be more innovative with their ideas, knowing that they do not have to ‘get it right’ first time.  The learning from projects that have not gone as planned can be just as useful if shared through networking events and co-operatives. Examples from the Ambition for Ageing programme include a Crafting Co-operative in Bury set up to bring together local groups interested in craft work, and in Bolton networking events were set up in each ward to bring together those who had received similar funding to share their experiences and future plans with each other.This could be supported by a delivery and management approach that prioritises relationships and dialiogue-building by, for example, giving contractors a set of quality standards from which to design their own specific goals and targets which reflect the needs of the communities they work with.

This more flexible approach will be essential for the community and voluntary sector to respond effectively to the new context of social distancing. This requires a closer dialogue between organisations and funders to allow organisations the time and support to do this work. This aspect will be crucial for equalities organisations who themselves are the least resourced yet working with those who are often affected the most by COVID-19. This might mean adjusting procurement and commissioning to reflect a more flexible test and learn approach, and methods of monitoring and evaluation may also need to be revised to reflect different goals and outcomes.

However, any recovery or indeed reinvention of the sector will be shaped and constrained by place-based inequalities. For older people living in low income communities, who are already more at risk of social isolation, a declining community and voluntary sector will mean less support available on their doorstep and less opportunities for social and civil participation. Alarming statistics from the ONS reveal that those living in the poorest parts of England and Wales are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than those living in more affluent areas. Far from being a ‘great equaliser’ this highlights the seriousness of the crisis facing our already most besieged communities.