When a Citizens Advice has to close despite demand being ‘off the scale’

In the end it was just £27,000. That was as much as the local district council said it could scrape together, but it was still a 50% cut in core grant funding and ultimately not enough to prevent Mansfield Citizens Advice service from becoming a casualty of the financial crisis raging through England’s local authorities.

Just over a week ago, when it became clear there was no more room for manoeuvre, the charity’s board of trustees took the decision to close for good, after 41 years serving the Nottinghamshire ex-mining town, one of the UK’s most deprived areas. “It’s devastating,” said its chair, Carmel Reilly. “There’s no other place for clients to go.”

Mansfield Citizens Advice’s prime task has been fighting poverty, its staff and volunteers providing practical help to a local community struggling with soaring debt, eviction and poverty. It was clear about its social justice mission: “People need someone on their side, who will do battle for them,” said Reilly.

Last year it provided expert financial advice to nearly 2,500 local people, helping them manage debts, apply for social security benefits, and resolve rent arrears. Times have been hard in recent years – industrial decline followed by austerity, pandemic and a cost of living crisis – and demand for its services have been off the scale.

Despite just a handful of staff and a budget of just £300,000, its return on investment was impressive last year: advisers got £800,000 of clients’ personal debts – on average £7,700 per person – written off. More than £1.1m in benefit entitlements was secured. By stopping tenants being evicted, it estimates it saved local landlords £268,000.

Its work had the additional benefit of shoring up people’s wellbeing, as well as their bank accounts, and preventing costly state interventions later on, said Reilly. The loss of the service, she reckons, will result in higher rates of stress and mental illness, and greater need at the GP surgery and the council’s homelessness department.

Mansfield district council’s grant to Citizens Advice was £55,000 – a so-called core costs payment that enabled the charity to pay staff and overheads. That base funding in turn allowed it to pull in project grants of about £250,000, a fragile economy of social investment that now looks about to collapse.

The council is struggling with a £5.4m deficit over the next three years. The local councillor Craig Whitby said the decision to cut funding was difficult, but made with the “utmost care and consideration”. An unsuccessful 11th hour attempt was made to scramble together a solution using cash earmarked for councillors’ allowances. Ultimately, he added, it was “essential for the financial health and stability of our council”.

Citizens Advice nationally estimates that local authorities collectively provide a third of its local branches’ funding. The risk is that these grants will be viewed as “discretionary” – and therefore expendable – by stricken councils seeking options to cut back to “basic minimum” levels of service. The current funding crisis was “deeply troubling”, said Citizens Advice’s chief executive, Dame Clare Moriarty.

In the leafy Surrey commuter town of Woking, the socio-demographic profile is very different to Mansfield, but its local Citizens Advice service too faces the prospect of closure from April after Woking borough council embarked on a drastic cuts programme, announced that it was scrapping its £180,000-a-year core costs grant.

Its chair, Laurence Oates, told the Guardian it helped 6,725 clients last year, providing help with universal credit and disability benefits, housing, family advice, and referrals to other local charities such as food banks. It estimates that every £1 invested in Woking Citizens Advice in 2022-23 saved the NHS and other public services £6, amounting to over £2m.

Woking council’s well-publicised bankruptcy last year, with debts of over £1bn, means it can no longer afford to invest in services it has no legal obligation to provide – even a vital community charity like Citizens Advice that saves it money in the long run and is at core of the local voluntary ecosystem.

“Our role is to protect vulnerable citizens in Woking – we are a lifeline,” said Oates. “For the people we serve, there will be a lot of unmet need, and we can’t see how that gap will be filled.”

The Guardian