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The State of Big Society Reuse

The Furniture Re-use Network is calling on the Government to rethink its Big Society and Re-use strategies and asking them to look at cross-departmental recognition of the wide and staggering benefits that reuse already has on the UK’s society, economy and environment.

Although FRN is grateful for the recognition of the work of FRN and its members, plus the Ministerial commitment that Local Authorities should cease making cuts in support for such front-line services, the reality for reusers is very different. The CEO of FRN, Craig Anderson, said that “The strong message coming across from the civil society sector is echoed by FRN’s experience, that what the Government wants and says is happening will not continue for much longer, because of funding cuts. There is a big disconnect between the Government’s Big Society ideology and on-the-ground reality. During a time of economic crisis we need less talk and more action.”

Current policies measures and strategies employed by Government Departments will not enable civil society organisations such as furniture reuse organisations to survive, let alone prosper and expand to meet the Government’s future expectations. This will have a significant impact upon the reuse landscape in the UK and on the sector’s ability to meet future targets resulting from the Government’s commitment to put greater emphasis on reuse and civil society involvement.

Craig Anderson stated that “We welcome the findings of WRAP’s recent ‘Benefits of Reuse’ research, in part for finally offering the evidence of our sector’s value; but more so as a wake-up-call to National and Local Government and others, of what charities and civil society groups have been doing for 30 years to support the local economy, to support people in deepest poverty, and to reduce waste. These outcomes and benefits are certainly worth promoting, if the sector can be sustained.  If the sector can survive it must be recognised that we are not dealing with normal commercial markets and this market cannot look after itself; but with the right market intervention from the Government we can increase the social, environmental and economic value over and above what we are doing today.”

Although charitable furniture reuse organisations do need additional household items from the waste stream to pass on to people in need; more crucially and urgently they need the continuity of financial support from Local Authorities, and an increase in volunteers and placements to support their activities. The introduction of the Department of Work and Pensions’ ‘Work Programme’ is seriously undermining our members’ ability to serve the needs of low income households, with the knock-on effect of reducing their capacity to handle more reusable bulky household waste.

Non-sector organisations fail to understand the crucial link between funding and volunteers and capacity and meeting Government targets; because they are not expert in understanding furniture reuse organisations .

Craig Anderson said that “Frustratingly, instead of being supported, the reuse sector is now being prodded and probed by agencies and hoards of consultants for information and data to determine the reuse sector’s future capacity for handling more reusable `waste’. The reuse sector is finding it extremely difficult and burdensome to respond to the numerous requests for information when they are working to survive and support the increasing number of people worst hit by the cuts and economic downturn.”

Every year the FRN membership:Reuses 2.6 million items - Reuses 91,000 tonnes - Saves over 100,000 tonnes CO2 -Saves UK households £330million per year - Supports 15,000 unemployed people and volunteers and 4000 staff - Supplies items to 750,000 low income households. 300 Civil Society Reusers do this on a £55million annual turnover. These valuable benefits and staggering savings are now at risk of being lost, the consequence of which will be the transference of this economic burden back on to the state and the taxpayer.

Government Policy: The sector needs cross-departmental policy ideas put into practice and we hope that with Defra having taken a lead in recognising the cross-cutting policy benefits, that the Department will be influential in driving and supporting a very important and visibly impactful sector as a major part of the Government’s Big Society agenda.

Markets: Reuse in terms of alleviating poverty must be recognised and reuse must not be anticipated like other markets. The reuse of household goods is mainly to the excluded consumer who is in need or crisis. Civil Society or third sector organisations intervene where markets fear to tread and where people are excluded from normal social and economic interaction. We need the Government to recognise that this work needs support and financial intervention at the national and local level if we are to help the most vulnerable people in UK society.

Waste: We all now have to look higher up the waste hierarchy, but reuse remains in the shadow of recycling due to the historic waste infrastructure that controls the movement and collection of these resources. Collection systems and sites are designed to recycle materials and meet ongoing targets; there is little room, let alone enthusiasm to introduce reuse collections or even separation directly to our sectors facilities. The barrier is the waste sector and this is where intervention is needed to enable a shift in how waste materials and products are collected, handled and sorted. For this we need an intervention that sets enforceable priorities on Local Authorities and their contractors and recyclers to embrace the waste hierarchy and the benefits that are now evidenced can be maintained and hopefully increased.

FRN Members: Local Authority cuts are being made on front-line services, not on their own internal efficiencies. In certain cases we know of a 75% cut in budgets to support community-based activities. Why would the Local Authorities (LAs), as stewards of their community, wish to make such stringent cuts when the result is a loss of huge local economic benefit and wider global environmental impact? Craig Anderson said that “We need intervention to persuade LAs to make efficiencies elsewhere not where communities make the difference. Big Society has been around for 30 years but I’m afraid to say it is getting smaller, just as the Government recognises its value and wants and needs it to see it grow.”

FRN: We are certainly not an arms-length association; certain flagship reuse initiatives such as our partnership with IKEA which aims to reuse 70,000 and recycle 30,000 items of furniture a year, are worth noting as the kind of direct impact that we have for the benefit of our members and civil society. At our Bristol head office and via our website we take 20,000 donor enquiries per month from people looking to donate to local charities. Mr Anderson extolled the value of the FRN stating that “We support members in their work with Local Authorities, waste companies, retailers and manufacturers, plus we offer support in quality assurance and auditing, and standards of operation. We provide reusers with valuable business support in order that in future they can develop financially sustainable, non-grant dependent reuse organisations, that will have a strong foundation on which to expand.”

All these valuable reuse initiatives are currently at risk and therefore the Government must reconsider how it allocates budgets and support given to introduce new policy measures more towards practical actions, if it wishes to maintain the staggering policy impacts and savings that the UK’s civil society reuse infrastructure offers.

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