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Charities risk becoming irrelevant, warns new report

Health Connections Mendip (HCM) never set out to be a model for anything. However, this deceptively simple project in the small Somerset town of Frome is being talked about, not just as a blueprint for community revitalisation, but as a road to renewal for a UK charity sector struggling to maintain its relevance and public confidence in an age of great social upheaval and public distrust.

The work of HCM, based in a GP practice, has attracted attention mainly because of a startling research study which suggests that when people with health conditions are supported by community groups and volunteers, both they and the NHS benefit. The findings are provisional, but they show that over the three years of the study, while emergency hospital admissions in Somerset rose by 29%, in Frome they fell by 17%.

The government recently published its own civil society strategy, which, Unwin says, is welcome but rather depends on how far Whitehall is going to devolve real power, as opposed to simply talking about it. One of the many problems of the strategy’s forerunner, David Cameron’s ill-fated “big society”, launched in 2010, was the way it cast established civil society groups as effective agents of top-down government-directed policies, while at the same time shredding the local funding available to them.

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