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Coming through it together: Liverpool’s community sector

20 June 2013

Staff and volunteers at Kirkby Unemployed Centre

Wednesday 19 June sees the Austerity Uncovered tour visit Liverpool, to talk with some of the voluntary sector organisations trying to represent, support and empower local residents. We meet some amazingly dedicated people, doing vital work, but we quickly pick up that all is far from well.

Kirkby Unemployed Centre has been based for over 25 years in what had been a derelict school in Knowsley, north east of Liverpool. Back in the 80′s, the small community group had been struggling to tackle the growing problem of unemployment in the area, and badly needed a more stable base. When they found the old school, a haunt for vandals and drug taking, they persuaded the council to let them use it, cleaning and rennovating it themselves, and keeping it secure for months until they got a final agreement.

It’s a perfect location. Right in the centre of the community it serves. It has space for a number of local projects to operate, alongside the centre’s core function of welfare and rights advice. We’re given a tour by management committee member Kevin, a docker for 30 years and hoping to get back into the work, and his colleagues Steve, Stevie and Tony.

They show us around some of the local community organisations who rent sections of the Centre. A nursery on site helps bring in income, as well as further grounding the centre in the community. Likewise a community and trust company, Advance Employabilty, where project worker Kerry tells us that unlike private providers they’re a non-profit, so 40% of the income they get to run courses for local residents goes back into the centre. They rent a classroom at KUC that they’ve filled with computers, helping people get the IT skills that you need for everything these days. You even need to use computers to access welfare now, as online job search and administration has become a condition for benefits – freezing out those people who have problems using computers.

Mental health support group Moseley Bridge are another tenant. Project worker Fiona tells us about the help they offer residents, from social programs and relaxation or anxiety management classes, to one-to-one support for people wanting to take difficult steps in their life with someone to help them through it, like using public transport for the first time in ages, or starting at college. They help 240 people locally, and receive local authority funding to carry out the work, but are finding pressures on their capacity as they see more and more vulnerable people stressed at facing ATOS assessments, and the difficult process of appealing decisions, or losing financial suupport they’d relied on.

KUC’s history is a huge asset. Generations of local people have now been coming here, and it’s a firm fixture in the community – local people see it as a safe pair of hands. There’s a hall for community meetings (they regularly invite politicians in to talk with residents) and sporting events, especially for the kids. A wide programme means the Centre is seen as a place that everyone is used to visiting, rather than just an advice centre.

Kevin tells us that things are starting to get strained though. There’s an ever increasing demand for welfare advice services, and as new systems and new cuts come into force, the advice they need to give is getting more complicated. Debt advice a big and growing part of their activity, to deal with shortfalls, and they’ve even started to provide meals deliveries for people who’ve been hit by cuts to the former meals-on-wheels scheme in the area.

As Kevin says: “Some of the stories we hear are absolutley horrendous. We can’t turn anyone away, but sometimes it’s desperate that you can’t really help them. It’s all eating away at the local standards of living. Everything is going up but benefits. Even the Chancellor of the Exchequer couldn’t juggle the figures that people are having to around here.”

Funding and staff for the centre are falling, and getting harder to replace. “You can only work for so long for nothing” says Kevin. The hugely dedicated staff (most of them former volunteers here) have already put in loads of work above and beyond the terms of their jobs, just to keep the place going.

They get some funding from unions and the TUC, as well as council project funding, but it has dwindled, and is hard to replenish. Kevin says they need to look more widely for funding – getting anything they can find. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. As Kevin says “when this is gone, it’s gone”.

Community groups at Ellergreen Community Centre

Over at Ellergreen Community Centre, we hear from a round table of community groups and councillors chaired by councillor, and author of a recent book on the cuts, Barry Kushner. The community centre we’re in is immaculate, a fantastic space in the middle of the estate that’s shared with a school and sports centre on site. The Council pays for the upkeep of the core building (with the groups based there seeking separate funding) but when central government have already handed the council a £32 million funding cut last year, with another £43 million cut coming down the line, Barry is worried that very little these days can be guaranteed to continue.

Kinship Carers is one of the local groups, dealing with a significant problem on the estate. Substance abuse has been a big issue locally, and thrown many young families into chaos. Luckily, the community is tight-knit, with generations in the same area, and many grandparents have had to take on raising their own grandchildren, to give them more stability. Project worker Pauline tells us though that cuts have meant fewer and fewer people are qualifying for the fostering support they used to get, with social services seeing it as “a private arrangement” rather than formal fostering.

Pat is a volunteer, and carer herself. She and her husband brought up two of their grandchildren, and have now stepped in again to make a stable home for their three other young grandchildren. It’s a huge undertaking for them both. Aged 60 and 62, Pat had been in receipt of disability benefits, with her husband receiving a small allowance as her carer. Recently assessed by ATOS and found fit for work – her appeal still pending – this has meant chaos for their finances, losing her husband’s allowance too, and some of the support they need to continue in a role that means they need to be around a lot for the young children.

There’s potentially some support available as the couple do qualify to foster their grandchildren. The only problem is that their house isn’t yet suitable for kids, and the fostering grants that used to be able for modifications like this have been cut. Kinship Carers are doing some fantastic work in helping the community to address a big problem they face.

Pauline tells us they don’t need much money to do this, but all funding these days is hard to find, and it seems tied up in more layers of bureaucracy and conditions. Grandparent carers are often all that’s stopping kids going into care, giving them a loving home, and saving £40,000 a year in care costs. It seems doubly harsh that support is so hard to get.

Another councillor, Chris, is a co-ordinator for Knowsley foodbank, where they’ve seen a 40% increase in need over the last year, and estimate they’ll feed 7,300 people this year. People are now being automatically referred to them from job centres, and like many community groups that are plugging the widening gaps in the state, Chris wonders if they’re doing the right thing. “It’s a case of are we doing the government’s dirty work for them” he says, “or do we turn needy people away?”

The new buzzword in the community sector is “resilient communities” – what everyone can do to help locally based groups to take control of their own finances in an environment where funding is never certain and never enough. At the meeting, they’re adamant that they want to see local people have a stake in controlling their own services, rather than have private contractors passing ever decreasing handouts from a distance.

Communities against the Bedroom Tax at WECC

Then we’re at West Everton Community Council, where we talk with a group of local women. They’ve had to adapt in the last year, changing the services they offer to respond to the growing need. Making people feel welcome when they’re stressed or embarassed is crucial, so they offer clearly themed days, from Worrying Mondays, where advisors are on hand to help people through housing, debt or welfare issues, to Friendly Fridays with fun communal meals, so people can give the kids a good tea, but not feel as though it’s a handout.

They’re determined to keep the community together, and stop the support networks between generations and between neighbours being broken up, leaving people to deal with the stresses on their own.

Their latest project is forming a group to campaign against the bedroom tax, which they see as ripping the heart out of the community, as people are moved far away from support networks, or placed under unbearable strain. One woman tells us how it feels the pressure is mounting on her. She’d be willing to move to a smaller place as she can’t pay the extra, but she’s recently got into arrears, which means she’s not allowed to move until they’re cleared. And all the time the bedroom tax is being added on top of the existing debt, making it less and less likely she can escape the trap. Another member of the group tells us “It’s as though you’re nearly getting to pull yourself out, when they start pouring in concrete on top of you.”

They’re coming together to petition the Labour Party to pledge to reverse the Bedroom Tax – unless this happens, they say, there’s not even a hope on the horizon, and hope – alongside family and community – is all that’s keeping people going right now.

Hugh Baird Community College

Hugh Baird Community College staff and students join us on the bus to talk about Educational Maintenance Allowance. The College has done a huge amount of work to maintain support to students after their EMA was cut. They’re paying costs and bursaries for travel and tools to over 800 of their 2,000 students, through dedicated funding, but also by raiding their reserves and other funds. There was still a gap though, as the cash wouldn’t cover 400 more students who could have qualified for help. Next year funding is going down, and it will be a real challenge to keep things stable – even more so once Further Education loans come in.

Lecturer Mark tells us he’s proud of what’s been achieved, but he still fears a big drop in potential students’ willingness to train as a result. EMA was well marketed and widely understood, and helped young people understand what might happen if they took on a course. With support now different depending on what different colleges can offer, that certainty is eroded, and the decision isn’t as easy to make. The college makes a real difference to the employability of young people in the neighbourhood, giving them skills which will be crucial if we’re to get a recovery nationally and see jobs pick up again. The need is increasing, but the college will need to work hard to sustain the support to their local young people.

Last word goes to Kevin at KUC, when he says “I feel so bereft at times about what we can do. If the jobs were there, these people would be at them, but they aren’t. You’re not on your own, even if it’s just a shoulder or an ear to listen. People are proud, but trying to sort things out themselves will put them in the hands of loan sharks. You’ve got to have hope as the only way is to come through it together.”

17 June - 29 June


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