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Celebrating communities

Posted on 15 June 2017

When David Cameron introduced the concept of the Big Society shortly after taking office in 2010 it was described by one commentator as 'exactly the right idea at exactly the wrong time'. 

The notion that, as citizens, we should spend more time working together to make our lives and communities better is pretty unarguable.  However, coining the phrase while at the same time introducing a far-reaching programme of spending reductions meant that it became easy to dismiss as a fig leaf for cuts – leaving communities with no support to figure out how to sustain the services and facilities they cherish.  Whether Theresa May’s Shared Society will fare any better in the years ahead remains to be seen.

Irrespective of the politics and the philosophising, what is clear is that in every part of the country people are trying to figure out how to deal with the new reality of a smaller public sector with less room to manoeuvre and with mounting pressure on services brought about by far-reaching demographic, economic and environmental change.

Transformation and achieving 'more for less' continue to dominate debate around public service delivery and, in particular, local government finance.  More often than not, this debate is dominated by 'big ticket' items such as adult social care and child protection.  Much less talked about is how we transform or resource what might be called 'neighbourhood services' – the patchwork of local activities that bring people together and contribute to our collective quality of life.

Many of these universal, open access services – revolving around culture, community and the environment - score highly when people are asked what they value and what would make their area better, but fare badly in budget setting rounds.

Our long history of working with councils to deliver support to communities demonstrates the value of these neighbourhood activities – youth projects, arts initiatives, local green spaces - in promoting cohesion, improving wellbeing and transforming lives.  So, if we can no longer rely on the state to fund and run these services, we need to consider how we support more communities to step up and take a lead.

Of course in the UK we have a long and strong tradition of voluntary action and a rich tapestry of community volunteers providing essential services and enhancing our quality of life – from the life-savers giving their time to the Samaritans or St John Ambulance to the army of mums and dads marking out pitches and putting up goalposts on soggy Saturday morning football pitches.

The challenge we need to address is to take these well-established forms of 'social action' and apply them to a range of services and facilities previously managed by councils or other more established organisations – our parks, youth clubs, arts centres etc.  What’s more, we need to do this at a time when the support previously available to community groups – from youth workers, neighbourhood management officers, community development workers – is increasingly scarce.

Although it’s never high profile or sexy, this support and infrastructure is vital.  If, as a committed member of my local community, I choose to offer my time as a school governor or junior sports coach, I can tap into an established programme of induction, training and support to make sure I do the job well and safely.  If I want to set up a group to improve a local green space or provide activities for young people, more often than not I have to start from scratch.

One way of addressing this gap is to enable communities to learn more from each other.  For the last five years, we have been helping 12 community partnerships across England share their successes and experiences through the Big Lottery Fund’s Communities Living Sustainably programme.  Through peer-to-peer networking, expert facilitation and consultation with stakeholders we learnt about the importance of place, the power – and perils - of partnership and the importance of understanding in granular detail what matters to local people.  Crucially, we also learnt that long-term change needs to be community-led but professionally supported.

If one-half of the equation is about support, advice and infrastructure, the other half is about inspiration, recognition and celebration.  Community groups across the country are achieving remarkable things – changing places and changing lives, sometimes in challenging circumstances and always with scant resources.  These achievements are seldom noticed beyond the neighbourhood or the people directly benefiting.  We think it’s time to change that and to celebrate the power and impact of community action.

The Groundwork Community Awards will recognise and honour the small groups making a big difference to the health, sustainability and prosperity of their areas.  As with every awards scheme, there’ll be winners – announced at a ceremony in London on 2 November – but, more importantly, we’ll be highlighting and celebrating all the entries we receive along the way, building a powerful bank of stories and evidence to demonstrate the diversity and vitality of an unsung sector.

Whatever political change and challenge we see in the next few years, we know we need to prepare our communities to be more resilient – better able to cope with the impacts of fast-moving globalisation, better informed about how things happen in their neighbourhood and better supported to take control of local assets and services.  The Groundwork Community Awards will shine a light on what’s already being achieved so that more might be encouraged to get organised and get active.

To find out more about the Groundwork Community Awards or to make a nomination, please visit the website. 

Post by Graham Duxbury

Chief Executive, Groundwork UK