Small community organisations in Hackney are being squeezed by spending cuts, as the voluntary grant awards show. The reduction of the borough’s Area Based Grant (which is awarded by the government) has forced Hackney Council to reduce voluntary sector funding. Arguably, this underlines the tensions between the coalition government’s Big Society idea and the economic reality on the ground.

In a positive development for community activists, Hackney Council Community Grant (the borough’s largest voluntary sector grant), has been kept at £2.5 million this financial year. In July however, the local strategic partnership – Team Hackney – reduced its community grants by 33%, following a £2.5m budget cut by the coalition government.

According to Team Hackney, which works towards achieving community goals negotiated with central government through the Local Area Agreement, its grants programme funds grassroots groups and volunteers to “tackle culturally sensitive issues in a culturally sensitive way.”

This year’s recipients included a Kurdish refugee support centre, a Jewish Orthodox reading club and a play scheme for disabled children.

Last month (23 September), £543,000 was awarded through Team Hackney Community Grants, with a further £71,000 coming from the East End & City Grassroots Grant.

Elizabeth Adebola, grants manager at Hackney Council for Voluntary Service (HCVS) said: “This year’s cuts made it even more difficult for the grants panel to allocate funding to many of the highly deserving applications received.”

“Community grants are perfect for getting local people to provide local solutions,” said Ergel Hassan of YOH Ltd, which won £13,131 from the fund for its ‘Choices’ youth education project. In 2007 YOH received just £1,000 from the fund.

Although support for relatively well-established organisations has been largely maintained, many smaller projects missed out. Last year, 90 groups received grant funding from Team Hackney. This year, only 34 of the 107 applicants were successful. Whilst over 40 small grants (£1,000 – £5,000) were awarded in 2009, just 13 were given this year. The central government-funded Grassroots Grant aimed at such mini-projects runs out this financial year, and a spokesperson for HCVS said its extension is uncertain.

Hackney-based Vietnamese community charity An Viet, which received £36,000 and £41,000 from Team Hackney’s grant in 2008 and 2009 respectively, received nothing in 2010. Based on An Viet’s latest financial accounts, the grant represented around a fifth of its total resources. The money was used to fund recreational activities for the elderly.

“Funding for voluntary sector has been cut a lot in the economic recession but we believe that Hackney Council are fair enough to consider potential projects that can most deliver borough’s [target] outcome[s],” said An Viet’s project manager Hien Nguyen. “No matter the funding cut, Hackney Council still puts priority on front-line services… which focus on welfare, training and employment advice.” The charity is hoping funding will improve once the economy recovers and is planning to re-apply for the grant next year.

In the July report to its steering group, Team Hackney justified cutting the grant by saying: “if the grants programme was protected, a commensurate level of savings would have to be found from other programmes, and this is likely to affect existing sector contracts.” According to HCVS, community contracts represent 22% of Team Hackney’s budget but accounted for 11% of the cuts.

A council spokesperson said: ‘’The council is committed to supporting Hackney’s voluntary and community sector.  The intention is to maintain the current level of funding for this current financial year at least. Funding for [Hackney Council Community Grant] comes from the council’s own main budget, so any further decisions will have to take account of the government’s spending plans for local government, which will be outlined in the Comprehensive Spending Review in October.”

In June, the council’s cabinet agreed to keep the grant at £2.49 million for the 2011-2012 financial year, pending agreement of the council’s budget, which is set for February 2011.

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