Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: August, 2015

In the steps of the Kinder heroes

My invigorating stroll across the hills in the Breamish Valley last weekend to support national parks is in direct line of succession to the great Kinder Scout trespass in 1932.

Admittedly, on this occasion, the fifty odd walkers taking part were not involved in any fisticuffs with gamekeepers. As far as I am aware, there were no arrests and there were no apparent Communists like those from Manchester who organised the Kinder trespass.

Protest walks were held in all the national parks but we may still not enter rambling mythology in quite the same way as the 400 protesters claiming the right of access to the highest point in the Derbyshire Peaks back then.

The Kinder  protest and the subsequent work of the Ramblers Association led to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act passed by the Labour government in 1949 which set up the series of 15 national parks. New Labour subsequently passed the  ‘right to roam’ legislation in 2000, honouring a commitment of their 1997 election manifesto.

Northumberland National Park was established in 1956. It is the largest, least visited and most sparsely populated of all the national parks. It is a quasi local authority responsible for planning, environmental protection, farming, industry and tourism. It has been designated by the international travellers magazine Conde Naste as one the five top national parks in the world.

No wonder. It contains 424 ancient monuments including Hadrians Wall; the unique landscape of the remote Cheviot Hills and the newly established Dark Sky Park in Kielder Forest. We should take greater pride in these treasures on our doorstep.

So why the fuss of protest walks? Since 2010, the Coalition government has cut the budgets for all the national parks from £56m to £45m.  Paltry sums in relation to government expenditure.

In Northumberland, the budget has reduced from £3.5m to £2.1m. Two of the three visitor centres have been closed; the apprenticeship scheme abandoned, ranger services cut and education and engagement activities reduced. Staff numbers have fallen from 68 to 48.  This is only the story so far.

Northumberland National Park now believes it has “a bare minimum of resources” to operate. The sponsoring government department is DEFRA which will have to save up to 40% of overall costs in the lifetime of this government.

The Park Authority has responded positively. It is pressing ahead with ambitious plans for The Sill; the proposed new visitor centre at Once Brewed which will create jobs and generate funds even though a further £1m has still to be raised.

It has become more entrepreneurial. The conversion of the former head office in Hexham into start up business hubs was praised by the Rural Affairs Minister, Rory Stewart, recently. It has set up a charitable foundation and already received two legacies form people who love the uplands.

National parks cost 85 pence per person per year. There are 90 million visits to the parks each year. I have long been amazed that days walking on well maintained hillsides are entirely free of charge, and usually without a collection box to be seen. Where else can you get such great days out without digging in your pocket?

The most depressing aspect of draconian cuts to the national parks is that no one has consciously set out to scale back the stewardship of our most outstanding countryside. Access to the countryside may be a class issue, but this government has not got it in for the countryside. It is an unintended and little known consequence of austerity.

It may not be the most serious consequence when compared to the closure of libraries and swimming pools. Elswick Pool is the latest to pull the plug. It pales into insignificance against the squeeze on social care for the elderly or the loss of housing benefit to young people.

It is small fry compared to the global threat of climate change where marchers will  gather over the weekend of 28 – 29th November to protest on the eve of the all important Paris conference. Put the date in your diary now.

People have lived in the Northumberland National Park for 10,000 years. Although over half the ancient sites are deemed at risk, they will survive to be enjoyed by the next generation. The flora and fauna will flower another year without our help. But the wild places of Northumberland are part of our inheritance and we should be ashamed of neglecting them.

How has it come to this? In a headlong rush to balance the nation’s books, we have cut back the small amount of money given to preserve the landscape.

Write to your MP and propose a moratorium on cuts to national parks funding for the lifetime of this parliament and the opportunity for them to bid for european and enterprise funding that will diversify their income.

A few weeks after the mass trespass at Kinder, and less reported in rambling history, 10,000 people turned out to protest. Perhaps our modest walk in the Cheviots will see a similar upsurge of support. It really is up to you.

Too many doors are closing

An  innovative and much loved charity closes its  doors. I am not talking about Kids Company  but Them  Wifies, the Newcastle based  community  arts group. After much soul searching followed by responsible planning , Wifies bows out on 28th August after 36 years.

The name came about when  children watching the staff unload their van on a council estate shouted “its them wifies” and it stuck.  Originally working with community groups on women’s issues, Wifies increasingly specialised in supporting  people with learning disabilities using their anatomically correct doll Josephine and running drama workshops for  young people  at risk referred by social services .

I remember the way that Wifies would network their way around a room of funders when I first came to Newcastle in the late eighties to work for the Community Foundation. They knew how to extract money and to write good funding proposals.

They had creative ideas and delivered on time. Wifies was one of a group of small North East based voluntary organisations  that included Skills for People and Lawnmowers who  gained  a national reputation through excellent work.  When their names cropped up in grant making circles in London,  you would be proud to say you knew them.

There is no disgrace in winding up a charity.  The British Association of Adoption and  Fostering  also closed last week for financial reasons. Occasionally the mission is accomplished and sometimes a charity runs out of steam.  Neither of these applies to Them Wifies. They simply ran out of people to fund them.

All the major grant making trusts including Northern Rock Foundation  have supported Them Wifies. Most recently Comic Relief awarded a three year grant. Newcastle City Council has in the past  provided solid support. But grant making trusts look for new projects and things that catch their eye. They rarely fund for more than three years and do not like to provide the core funding.

A few foundations like Lloyds Bank and Garfield Weston  are rethinking their approach as, for the first time this year, trust and foundation grants (£2.5 b ) totalled more than government and local authority grants (£2.2bn). In 2002, government provided £5bn and trusts £1.6bn.  The public are often surprised that charities receive so much public funding but many dispense public services.

Kids Company is a good example. The staff provided psychotherapy to the most disturbed and deprived children that statutory services cannot reach.  My wife, who is a psychotherapist, was so impressed that she donated a lavish gown purchased for a big birthday bash to a Kids Company auction.

Small charities like Wifies, which are the vast majority of the 160,000 registered charities, would be gobsmacked at the size of the £3m bail out  approved by government ministers against the advice of civil servants  and by the matching £3m donation from a philanthropist.

Philanthropy is thriving in the North East however from people like Tony Platten whose fund at the Community Foundation from  the sale of his business in Blyth provides £100,000 a year  to support people into employment.  The Sage Group  has just made a further donation  £1m to the 10th birthday appeal of the eponymous music centre as well.

Don’t be kidded. Wealthy philanthropists and public spirited companies alone cannot replace the kind of money that government used to provide to the third sector. Charities are being  expected to take over the care of the most difficult children from hard pressed social services without being paid properly  to do so.

Criticisms of charities can be unduly harsh. Of course a charity the size of Kids Company should have reserves for a rainy day especially if it depends  too much on celebrity frocks.  Most charity accounts I read, as a trustee of a national grant making trust, show only a month or two’s  money in reserves.   But show me an SME with strong reserves?  Most small businesses are also stretched to the limit.

Charities are criticised for spending too much money on  running costs when the evidence shows that the high performing charities spend more on administration to provide for financial management and evaluation.   Both appeared  lacking at Kids Company.

There is a holier than thou expectation about charities. I bet there are more reported cases of fraud and financial mismanagement in the private and public sectors than in the third sector but more outrage when a charity falls short. The alleged fraud at the insurance claim handler  Quindell  has hardly figured in the papers.

In its latest survey, Newcastle Council for Voluntary Service  finds that 74% of members report increased demand for their services, 45% report reduced income and 83% predict their reserves will be exhausted over the coming year. One of the respondents said “the voluntary sector is being asked to do more and more in the community. We often get told we do a good job but this does not fund those who do the work or pay our running costs.”

Something precious  is in danger of being lost here. Others will follow Them Wifies to the door unless we take responsibility for funding  the charities that serve  those at the bottom of the pile.