'The town seems affluent, but look at the evidence of people who need our help'
Saturday 20 November 2010
From the leafy serenity of Witney Green, with one of the Oxfordshire town's picturesque church spires and local pubs in the middle distance, it is not hard to see why David Cameron, the local member of Parliament, imagined a return to an old-fashioned community spirit could help solve many of Britain's social ills.
He entered Downing Street promising to build a "Big Society", which would step into the breach left by the biggest cuts to the size of the state in generations. Six months later, public spending has been slashed by £81bn.
But even in his own idyllic back yard, acute tensions are already appearing in his attempt to hand power back to the people at the same time as cutting state services. Visiting Mr Cameron's west Oxfordshire constituency may feel like a foray into a rural past, but the area has not escaped the economic collapse unscathed. Witney town centre has the odd boarded-up store front and has several small council housing estates dotted around its perimeter.
Just down the road from the antique stores along the town's main thoroughfare – housed in an inconspicuous, stone-clad property – the local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) is busier than ever. Most mornings, its waiting room is full of 10 or so locals seeking help. Staffed by 100 volunteers, who all give up a day a week to work there, it represents the beating heart of the "Big Society" here. Its workload increased by almost a third last year, with more than 18,800 inquiries from residents. "On the surface [Witney] does look affluent, but there are hidden pockets of deprivation," said Barbara Shaw, its chief executive. "All we can do is look at the evidence of people who come through the door."
Two years ago, the CAB's staff saw a spike in inquiries about job losses. In 2009, those with debt problems increased by 48 per cent, well above the national average of 23 per cent.
There was also a 47 per cent rise in the number of families at risk of losing their homes. The CAB's emergency repossession advice service at the local court has also seen a surge of demand. Despite the huge clamour for its services, funding has been flat for two years and cuts are on the way.
"Following the spending review, every CAB is expecting to have some funding cuts," Ms Shaw said. "We have no idea what it is going to be."
In all likelihood, paid staff positions will have to be sacrificed.
The bureau is already making changes. It has introduced a new "gateway" system, with many inquiries immediately passed on to the local council or a solicitor.
But with huge council spending cuts on the way, the local authority's ability to act on tip offs will also be curtailed. It highlights the tensions of expecting a sense of community spirit to take off at a time when spending of all kinds is slumping. It also backs up the claim of Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who argued that the "Big Society" would put rural communities in danger, as church and voluntary groups in the areas are already at full stretch.
Donna Spain has found herself having to do more just to stand still. "The only thing I would criticise the Government for is the changes to child benefits and tax credits that my family relied on," said the 22-year-old, her two young children in tow. "Both my husband and I go out to work and yet we are losing benefits. It doesn't seem fair. We relied on them to make ends meet each month."
To compensate, she has just taken a second job as a cleaner at a local supermarket, where she was already working behind the till.
Her sister, Sally-Anne Jones, is also frustrated.
"Rather than helping out those who are trying to better themselves to the benefit of them and their families, they are penalising them," said the 26-year-old, who works to fund a university course. In the nearby town of Carterton, however, signs of the "Big Society" are more promising. The Prime Minister must have rejoiced when he met its deputy mayor, Adrian Coomber, a few weeks ago.
Not only does he head a Neighbourhood Action Group, working with police and the council to improve the local community, he also organises litter pick-ups and anti-graffiti campaigns. But while he and others have been willing to step in to locate fly-tipping hotspots and figure out the crime priorities for local people, the question of who ultimately foots the bill remains.
"It's easy to identify the problems. It's not always easy to identify the best method of delivering a solution," Mr Coomber said. He explained that while his group identified anti-social behaviour and the lack of youth facilities as the number one issue for residents, the town's only youth centre was under threat of closure because of the spending squeeze.
Thames Valley Police has also warned that cuts may lead to "noticeable reductions in services". And even in middle-class Carterton, the "Big Society" can be thinly peopled.
"We're always in need of volunteers – I find myself saying that all the time," Mr Coomber said. "People have got lots of things to say about how terrible society is sometimes, but when it comes to asking people to roll up their sleeves and do something about it, that's the difficult bit."
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