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How long are we going to let volunteers run the show for us?
4:31pm Thursday 26th April 2012 in Editor's Chair
WE all rightly applaud the fantastic work done by volunteers – but the Government is now becoming far too reliant on them.
The UK is spawning a culture in which public services are provided for free. And that’s fair enough to a point, except sometimes I wonder where my tax money is actually going.
Take the NHS, for example. We hear of the vital life-saving work of air ambulances week in and week out, and yet this essential service is provided by charities.
Other charities also pay for cutting-edge equipment in hospitals or supply hospices or important nursing care.
And yes, this is wonderful because the NHS does not have endless money, but it worries me that our country could end up being propped up on goodwill.
David Cameron’s Big Society is a laudable notion. We should all chip in and do what we can, but sometimes it’s worth reflecting our efforts may backfire in the long run.
This all came to mind when reader Malcolm Wiles sent me a thought-provoking letter this week.
He had a bone to pick with last week’s story about the rebirth of Flackwell Heath Library. We reported that more than 50 volunteers had rallied round to save it from closure after Bucks County Council slashed the budget for small libraries.
Mr Wiles wrote: “Not everyone in Flackwell Heath is delighted by the new Flackwell Heath community library. No amount of flag waving or spin alters the fact that BCC closed our professionally-run library at the end of March, and the prospects that it will ever again reopen as a proper library service are remote indeed. However hard they try, volunteers (mostly retired people) doing perhaps half a day per fortnight are never going to achieve the competence and continuity provided by trained, professional staff. Standards and service will inevitably suffer greatly as a result.”
Mr Wiles, from Flackwell Heath, pointedly added that the library staff who lost their jobs would not be cheering either.
It’s worth taking pains here, however, to applaud the work of those who saved this and other libraries. Without volunteers, Flackwell Heath would have no library and clearly we must be grateful.
But Mr Wiles has rightly identified an alarming situation which I believe is a ticking timebomb.
The volunteers exist because Bucks is an affluent county with plenty of pensioners who can afford to help society.
But we all know about the state of the economy and the fact that Wycombe in particular has been facing up to a dire jobs crisis.
High Wycombe’s town centre is now dominated by charity shops, presumably mainly manned by volunteers, while it’s increasingly more difficult for people to find paid employment.
What’s more, pensions have gone into freefall. Final salary pensions have all but disappeared in the private sector and the value of annuities has decreased, giving people lower retirement incomes than expected.
In addition, the retirement age is being increased.
This all points to a future in which we will have far fewer affluent pensioners able to fill the volunteer posts we are now becoming so reliant on.
Equally as worrying, there are likely to be loads more sick old folk to care for as people live longer.
But what’s the answer if we genuinely have no money? Politicians will say there is no alternative.
So it’s worth listening to Malcolm Wiles again.
He says: “They [the Government and councils] will say these are hard times and cuts have to be made. I do not buy this argument for one moment. They can apparently find plenty of our money with which to devastate our AONB and countryside by building a high speed railway line, which will have no commercial return, right through the middle of it. Quite a few libraries could be kept running with £33bn.”
Please don’t misread this column and see it as an attack on volunteers or the charity sector. We all hugely appreciate what they are doing for us, and we must not stop contributing to them.
But sometimes, I think Governments and councils appreciate them – and take them for granted – a bit too much.
And one day soon, this is all going to come back to haunt us.