Big society 'could widen volunteer gap between town and country'
Rich rural areas 'will fare better than deprived cities' Cameron's big idea just a cover for cuts, says bishopRachel WilliamsThe government's "big society" risks widening the gap between rich rural areas and deprived cities in the north and Midlands because of higher levels of volunteering in wealthier areas, a report seen by the Guardian warns.The analysis, by consultants Consulting Inplace, comes as a leading bishop suggested the idea of the big society was little more than a cover for cuts.The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, said community groups in deprived areas would be less likely to take up the big society agenda if they were struggling to cope with slashed funding.Pritchard told the Oxford Mail: "The money that's needed to bring the best out of the community won't be available. It's being removed when they hope that people's community spirit will rise and make up all the gaps."I think we are in dangerous territory if we assume a demoralised society will be able to step in to the breach we have to ask ourselves if the big society really is simply a cover for the cuts."Consulting Inplace studied levels of volunteering in communities across England and found they were generally higher in well-off areas in the countryside, and lower in poor areas, particularly cities outside the south. The best-scoring place for volunteering was West Devon, where 36% of those surveyed for the National Audit Office did so, while Hull came last, with 14%. On average, almost a quarter of the adult population say they regularly volunteer.The report also found areas, including Bradford, where the proportion of people giving their time for free was higher than expected.Dave Forrest, the director of Volunteering Bradford, the city's volunteer centre, said the strength of volunteering there was due to the linked-up working between the group and public sector bodies.The report said areas where levels were low needed to learn from such "outriders" and be given help and support if the vulnerable were not to fall further behind.But urban local authorities are set to be hit far harder than the huge cuts to councils unveiled in the government's comprehensive spending review last year.The report comes after Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, the outgoing head of Britain's largest volunteering charity, Community Service Volunteers CSV, said the big society is being undermined by spending cuts that risked "destroying" the country's volunteer army."Some localities will be better placed to benefit from the big society, while others may be in danger of losing out as a result of the policy, unless their specific challenges are addressed," the report warns.Factors like education, income, family circumstances and confidence all affected people's ability to get involved in the big society: "Not all people have the same endowments of these qualities. This could mean that the most vulnerable in society may benefit least, with better endowed areas more able to take the opportunity to benefit from the big society widening social inequality in the process, rather than reducing them."Richard Holt, the company's chief executive and joint author of the analysis, said prosperous areas saw more volunteering because residents had more time and a better understanding of how building a stronger community would benefit them."The better-off areas are the ones which will be better prepared for the big society so there's a danger of making polarisation worse rather than better," he said.VolunteeringSocial enterprisesSocial exclusionVoluntary sectorTax and spendingBritish identity and societyRachel Williamsguardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions More Feeds