In Southend-on-Sea, Alan Burgess is talking about council cuts. The charity he volunteers for has had to set up its own bus service to help people get to the shops because the council took away the route, leaving some people stuck at home without it. Burgess, who drives the bus, understands the council’s decision but can’t get his head around how councils have been left with so little money.
A decade of severe and sustained cuts to local government budgets have led to community services across the country, from libraries to leisure centres, being downgraded or closed down completely. But some communities have fought back. Rather than see their local youth centres or homeless shelter fall into disrepair, armies of volunteers like Burgess have stepped in to fill the gaps left behind as cuts bite.
As part of our What It’s Like To Lose series, HuffPost UK has been exploring how the loss of individual services link up to paint a national portrait of Britain under austerity. One seldom-told part of this story are the people who give up their time to support their neighbours where the state once did.
Here are five of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who are now on the frontline of Britain’s public services. It’s these volunteers, who in Burgess’ own words, “keep communities going”.
Chris Dwornik is not actually a librarian. In her mid-50s and semi-retired, she is one of 50 volunteers helping to run Little Chalfont Community Library in The Chilterns.
Dwornik has been working there for the last two years, but the library has been run by the community for the last 12.
Run by a committee of dedicated local residents, the site was visited 9,000 times last year, and was taken over by the community after Buckinghamshire County Council decided to close a number of libraries in 2007.
Dwornik remembers the shock when it was first announced. “It was very sad … An action group then came together and started sorting it out.”
When she became semi-retired, Dwornik quickly grew fed up with daytime TV and wanted to do something with her newfound freedom after spending most of her life raising a family and working. As a regular user of the library, it was the obvious choice for a volunteer job.
“It’s such a community centre. I think it’s incredibly important that children, and everybody really, has access to books. But not just books – the access to a community space and all the resources it has available.”
The library, which Dwornik says is very well-stocked thanks to some impressive fundraising and some “great book buyers”, also provides access to computers and photocopying, a “knit and natter” group and regular film nights.
“To be honest I’ve gained as much as I’ve given,” Dwornick says. “The best thing about this is everyone pulling together and doing this because of the love of having a library and community service here.”
The bus driver
Alan Burgess worked for the Ambulance Service for 32 years. When his wife passed away, his children encouraged him to move back home to Southend-on-Sea, and the retiree decided to look for volunteering opportunities,
Now 72, Burgess said after he returned most of his friends had moved on, “so I had to find something to do with my time”.
He found Wyvern Community Trust, a charity that provides community transport and dial-a-ride services. When Essex County Council announced in 2013 it was cutting bus routes on Canvey Island, Wyvern stepped in.
Burgess is now one of the 10 volunteer drivers, and he commands the Shopper Bus, which takes mainly elderly people to the supermarket and back – often their only chance to get out of the house.
“Before there had been a normal bus route, but it disappeared. Initially Wyvern did the service on a contract from the council, but because there weren’t many people using it from the council’s point of view, they took the route off completely and wouldn’t fund it. So Wyvern decided to do it at a low cost price just to keep it going,” he said.
He gets “quite a kick out of doing it”, he said, and it means he gets to meet people, which is important to him, as he lives alone. “It’s quite nice doing a regular run because you get to know people as well,” he added.
He despairs at how councils are being forced to make cuts. “Essex County Council is obviously trying to cut corners as much as it can, and I can understand that side of things, but I can’t understand how we’ve got into that situation.
“I think it’s the volunteers who really keep communities going,” he says.
The homeless shelter host
Joanne Webster has “loved every minute” of volunteering with young homeless people for the last five years. But she is not rolling her sleeves up at a homeless shelter in town – the shelter is her own home.
Webster, who is a dinner lady at a junior school and a cleaner, volunteers for Sash, a charity preventing homelessness in young people throughout North and East Yorkshire.
Her role is crucial. She gives people who have been made homeless a bed, to ensure they don’t become rough sleepers. Depending on what’s needed, the stays can be as short as 10 days, known as the “night-stop service”, or as long as a year.
Webster and her husband first started volunteering when they had looked into fostering. “A lot of the young people have been in the system and have actually been in foster care, but perhaps get lost and ended up sofa-surfing. Then they are too old to be fostered but they also need that support to move on,” she said.
Many of the young people suffer with mental health problems or are the children of parents with drug or alcohol addicts, but others have just been kicked out by their families after a breakdown in relations. “It’s not always kids who have gone off the rails. A lot also come from good backgrounds and their parents are teachers or police. We get all sorts. People are always surprised.”
Webster has five children of her own, from 13 to 28 years old. She’s welcomed 16 young people into her home since she began volunteering. Some of them come to visit her still, and two recently joined for Christmas.
“I don’t like to just say ‘see you later’. I get them ringing me up for a chat and it’s lovely because that’s what I enjoy doing. I tell them ‘you know where we are’ and they might come over for Sunday dinner.”
She believes there has been an increase in demand for the service, especially because there are such huge waiting lists for child and adolescent mental health services.
“There is definitely more demand for Sash in recent years, and there is a waiting list. Some of them now end up going into adult hostels. That’s not fair.”
Webster can’t see herself stopping anytime soon. She adds that the young people have taught her and her family as much as they have taught them.
“My children have learned that life is not simple, and that they shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. It’s totally opened our eyes up.”
The park gardener
Paul Williams is a police detective by day, and a gardening volunteer by night (and weekends).
The 42-year-old father of two began volunteering at Poole Park in Dorset two years ago. His family live in a block of flats that overlook the park, and they treat it as their back garden.
When the council secured funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to improve and enhance the large Victorian-built green space, they did a call-out for volunteers to help. It came at the right time for Williams, who was keen to give something back to the park he used so much.
There are paid council staff too, but Williams says they “tend to save up” the weeding for the volunteers. “They are good fun though and they really appreciate it,” he added.
Without the funding and the volunteers, the park wouldn’t have seen so many improvements. “[The council] have probably had to cut back as well I would think,” he said.
“In all services, even in the police, I see a lack of resources and no money coming in anymore. Even we rely on volunteers to wash our cars and stuff like that. I think we all do need a helping hand from other people who want to give their time.”
He added that he thought volunteering would become even more common in the future. “I suppose there’s a cross section in every society who are generous and want to give back, while others don’t want to do anything at all and just hate it all, but I think that’s the same in any country.
“There certainly seems to be a good sort of spirit among us lot but if you weren’t a giving back kind of person, you wouldn’t get involved in volunteering. You just wouldn’t do it.”
He enjoys taking his children to see what he has been working on – a sensory “quiet garden”, and a war memorial.
“If they ever have a session at the weekends, I might take the kids over and get them involved. I have done that in the past.”
Volunteering also helps him cope with his stressful job. “It’s totally different from what I do for work. It’s a chance for me to give something back to the community instead of lock them up,” he said.
“It’s therapeutic really. I can just go over there and mess about and carry some big rocks around and stuff like that. For me, it’s a chance to switch off and do a bit of a brainless activity that I can do to release from the day’s stresses.”
The youth worker
Suzanne Toprak works as a supply teacher at a primary school, but in her spare time, she is a volunteer welfare office at Metro Judo club in south London.
Although it’s not officially a youth club, it is a member of London Youth, a network of more than 450 community youth organisations supporting young Londoners.
Every one of its members depends on volunteers to keep their services open, particularly as public funding cuts to youth services have been severe and sustained since 2011.
Toprak has been volunteering for 17 years, having first got “sucked in” when her daughters decided to give judo a go. She is passionate about the difference it makes to young people, in terms of confidence and discipline.
She volunteers three nights a week, and does everything from collecting money, dealing with over-competitive parents, to keeping an eye on teenagers who are having “issues”.
“It can be a bit of pressure to be honest with you, but luckily I work in a school so I’m very hot on safeguarding and child protection, so I think that’s really helped me in the role I do.”
Referring to the recent spike in violent crime among London’s youth, she said: “There is a lot less for young people to do which is why you have all these problems happening.
“It is scary. That’s why the club tries to cater for people who want to come socially and not just to reach competitive level. There are opportunities for them to also become coaches or referees so we try to make sure they keep coming on the mat and being a part of this community.”