Now more than ever we need strong and resilient communities, to support us all through the immediate crisis and in the months and years ahead.
Charities and community organisations have so far been forgotten. They need a package of equal ambition.

But vital community organisations who are the bedrock of local support and connection are facing significant financial loss, reductions in staff and volunteers, and possible closure – at a time when their communities will need them most.

Rishi Sunak yesterday announced an unprecedented package of support for businesses. Charities and community organisations have so far been forgotten. They need a package of equal ambition.

These are unprecedented times. This week the government announced the most dramatic curbs on day-to-day life since the end of WW2. As a country, we face a collective effort to contain a virus that is spreading rapidly. At an individual level, this is causing distress, anxiety and uncertainty. We are all grappling with how we adapt to a new regime of social distancing.

The full scale of the medical, societal and economic impacts of COVID-19 will take some time to reveal itself. However, there are some things we do know already.

Locality and partner organisations have been in constant contact with our collective members in recent days to hear about the challenges they and the communities they serve are facing. In short, people and organisations are on the brink, and we need an economic response from government to meet the scale of this challenge head on.

Second, despite these challenges, we are hearing that the power of community is more important than ever and remaining strong in the face of challenge. Community organisations and charities across the country are already adapting to the new reality of social distancing and responding to the challenges of disconnection, heightened vulnerability and isolation that this is causing.

At Locality, we’re focused on supporting community organisations through this difficult time – through practical advice on the challenges they are facing and through representing their concerns to government.

Community organisations and charities which use trading and enterprise to give them income to support their services – from community cafes to room and space hire – face an immediate risk. Many are having to make staff redundant and reduce all overheads to an absolute minimum to avoid closing altogether. We’ve heard stories of organisations losing a third of their trading revenue over night. For organisations that run buildings, they face the implications of their tenants potentially ceasing trading and being unable to pay rents.

Others face loss of income from contracts and paid-for services, such as nurseries. Many have insurance policies that cover diseases, but not new viruses such as COVID-19.

So we need strong and urgent action from government right now – to provide tailored support for community organisations and charities to help them continue to play their vital role in facing the challenge our society faces.

The scale of the challenge is unprecedented

The measures being put in place to protect people from COVID-19, and the virus itself, will impact almost every aspect of our lives. Community organisations are not exempt from this. Rishi Sunak yesterday announced a package of unprecedented scale for businesses. This included £330 billion of government backed loans, scaled-up grant packages for small businesses and business rate and mortgage holidays.

We are urgently seeking further clarification from government on whether community organisations are eligible for any of this support. It appears they aren’t.

So, it’s vital that government provides a dedicated a package of support for our sector – of the same ambition to their support for business – recognising the distinct challenges they face. We argue that this package should include six measures.

A six-point package

1. An emergency grant fund of at least £10bn to support voluntary and community organisations. Loans will not be suitable for many in the community sector. An emergency grant fund would support cash-flow and mitigate impact, enabling organisations to stay afloat and repurpose their services to support their communities and local responses to COVID-19.

2. Explicitly extend other support offered to small businesses to cover community organisations and charities. ‘Small business grant funding’ will provide £10,000 to around 700,000 business currently eligible for Small Business Rate Relief. This needs to be extended to smaller community organisations too.

3. A loan guarantee offer for community organisations and charities. This should be done through expansion of the business interruption loan scheme.

4. Pressing the insurance industry to cover COVID-19 losses under business interruption cover and notifiable disease cover.

5. Increase flexibility around grant/contract conditions and instruct all other public sector agencies to do the same.

This should include:

· paying for contracts upfront, not in arrears;

· suspending most/all delivery targets for six months – with a review on extension;

·  preparing to vary contracts at speed to allow organisations to change their service delivery models;

· Consider extensions and suspensions of competitive processes for the next 12 months.

6. Support for staff facing unemployment: As with all employers facing difficult staffing decisions, community organisations should be able to make these choices safe in the knowledge that staff being asked to take temporary unpaid leave or sabbaticals will receive immediate financial assistance from government. This worker assistance should last for the period of disruption – initially six months – and could be paid either through direct payments or via a support package to their employers.

The scale of this challenge can’t be underestimated. As workers are laid off and social distancing is stepped up, demand for the services provided by community organisations is falling off a cliff and their delivery models are needing to change at pace.

Any government response to support the voluntary and community sector must come alongside a package of measures that supports every individual at risk in society. This could be through a rapid and large-scale extension of universal credit or the introduction of a citizens’ income. All of this must happen within days. Communities and community organisations are on the brink.

Tony Armstrong
Chief Executive, Locality