Dorset Council has been told that it could lose the county hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pounds, by cutting funding to charitable and voluntary organisations.

The authority is considering a range of proposals which range from a ten per cent cut in grants to making no changes, although Cabinet brief holder Cllr Tony Alford says that the ‘no change’ scenario was not a realistic option if the council wanted to deal with the inequalities of the current system.

Arts and community groups lined up at Tuesday’s cabinet meeting in Dorchester to make their case for continuing funding as it is, or even improving it.

Many told councillors that by receiving council grants most were able to then attract additional funding into the county – meaning that for every pound the council spent they would multiply its value.

Lib Dem group leader Cllr Nick Ireland said the council seemed to regard many of the organisations as liabilities rather than assets, when they represented great value for money.

“For this council's £92,000 investment into Dorset Community Action this has brought over £1.5m to Dorset from the groups that DCA support," he said.

“Dorset County Museum, for a support cost of around £80,000 provides, by this council's own numbers, around £2m of positive economic impact to the local economy…

“It does not make good business sense to even start to consider what, in this paper's own words, are 'modest' savings of up to £160,000, when the impact of that on both those organisations we support, or indirectly on us and our residents is unknown,” he said.

Cllr Pauline Batstone (Con), who represents the council at Dorset Community Action and chairs the Dorset Race Equality Council, said the report to Cabinet lacked any real measure of the leverage of the council grants; or the time that volunteers gave, and did not treat all organisations as equal.

Cllr Brian Heatley (Green) said that making sensible changes the council could achieve what he described as ‘transformational possibilities.’

“The blanket assumption that we should be spending less on some is a mistake,” he said.

Many of the groups made their case for continued funding including Dorchester Arts, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, the Arts Development Company and Artsreach.

Each spoke of the money they brought into the county, the pleasure or support they provided for residents and the thousands of hours of voluntary time offered.

Said Sarah James, chief executive of The Arts Development Company: “For every £1 invested in by the Council, £4.80 of new money comes into Dorset. The leverage value of the council’s current investment into Dorset arts and culture is substantial – a recent figure set it as over £25m from Lottery alone in 2018/2019.”

She said the county’s arts and culture sector also helped deliver on the emerging priorities of the council’s Local Plan through helping people lead active, healthy and independent lives.

“There is clear evidence that the arts can improve wellbeing, drive recovery, support illness and disease management, particularly for those people living with dementia and mental health conditions. This arts-led approach also saves the NHS money and provides a social return on investment of between £4 and £11 for every £1 invested,” she said.

A plea was also made for the council to abandon its idea of annual funding and go for three or five year agreements which helped organisations plan ahead and pulled in extra funding from national organisations which work on that timescale.

New policy will 'remove previous funding discrepancies'

Only one organisation, the Citizens Advice Bureau, was expected to be guaranteed its continued funding of around £550,000 a year because of the support and advice it offers to residents – but some councillors said that was also unfair because other groups did as much, but in different ways.

Cllr Tony Alford, the brief holder leading the consultation exercise, said that the council wants to see a new policy which will remove the previous funding discrepancies between districts and boroughs with a suggestion that future funding might focus on organisations which support council policy priorities.

He said under the previous councils residents of North Dorset received £1 of funding per person, per year; West Dorset gave £5.90; Weymouth £1.45; East Dorset £2.70 and Purbeck £1.80.

Cabinet members agreed to increase the consultation period from six to eight weeks and promised to take into account all the comments made by organisations at the meeting.

The earliest the new system will come into effect is expected to be October 2020, although Cllr Alford agreed it might be better to look towards April 2021.