Groundwork has been on a mission to transform lives in local communities for the best part of 40 years. That means we’ve spent a long time thinking about the word ‘community’ and about the significance of place.
Not that long ago there was a view that these might become redundant concepts. We assumed this generation would grow up as global citizens, selling their labour wherever the economy led them. We also assumed that online communities would increasingly meet our needs for belonging and a sense of shared experience.
It isn’t working out that way. The vast majority of people still live their lives within 15 miles of where they were born and, for all its benefits, social media serves to polarise and tribalise as much as it connects and integrates.
As one of our young ambassadors said to me:
Social media makes thousands of other people’s lives visible to you, but if you’re emotionally attached to none of them, it can make you feel doubly lonely.
So, places - and communities of place - matter. That’s why the Groundwork Community Awards, held last night in Westminster, shone a spotlight on what’s going on in them and why those celebrations were underpinned by a clear call to action.
In England, local authority budgets for what might be called neighbourhood services (culture, community, environment, youth, transport) have decreased by 40% and up to 60% in some of our most deprived areas, according to the Association for Public Service Excellence. This means if we want to preserve the facilities and services that we value – from parks and play areas to village halls and sports pitches – communities will need to take more of a lead.
The good news is we’re building on a solid base. The Government’s Community Life survey shows that 47% of adults volunteer on a regular basis and 68% say people in their neighbourhood pull together to improve their local area. There are estimated to be some 6,000 local community groups helping to look after parks and green spaces alone.
However, there is a clear need and appetite for more. The same survey shows that two thirds of people say it’s important they can influence decisions about their local area but only one third feel able to do so. There are many flourishing community groups with the skills and capacity to get more involved in managing services and spaces in their area, but many people with ideas and enthusiasm find it difficult to know where to start, and those that are working tirelessly can feel isolated and find it difficult to get their views heard.
If communities everywhere are going to have more of a say and get more active in running local projects and services then what’s clear is that they need more support. We need to build a stronger community infrastructure – what’s been called by others a ‘civic operating system – the stuff that supports stuff to happen’.
Groundwork’s experience, built up over four decades, is that face to face support from experienced community workers can take a group of residents from concern and criticism to constructive problem solving and committed long-term engagement. Linking this local support to a stronger national network of friends’ forums and volunteer groups would provide a platform for sharing and learning whilst also helping policymakers and funders understand barriers and opportunities on the ground.
As we head towards a new year and gear up for a post-Brexit comprehensive spending review, we need action on three fronts.
1. Put communities at the heart of policy
We need to recognise that reductions in public spending have impacted most on those services and facilities that make our neighbourhoods better, more civilised and more sustainable places to live. If we really are approaching the end of austerity then our politicians need to recognise which service areas have taken most of the pain and back up the positive statements in the Civil Society Strategy with real investment.
2. Make best use of existing budgets
In the current year more than £120bn of public money will be spent on health and £80bn invested in public infrastructure. We need to win the argument that investing a small amount of this budget in supporting communities will help us manage the escalating costs of our health, social care and welfare systems. A stronger community infrastructure delivered as part of the ‘social value’ attached to core public services will mean people are better able to support each other and make more sustainable lifestyle choices that ultimately keep us – and our planet - well.
3. Provide support where it’s needed
In many parts of the country, there is a long track record of community action and a strong network of local volunteer groups. But this isn’t the case everywhere. In areas with a more transient population or where people are juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet, community action is harder to take root and to keep going. We need to turn appetite into action by providing encouragement, advice, skills and funds where they’re most needed. We support the campaign to establish a Community Wealth Fund utilising unclaimed financial assets to underpin place-based investment.
Ultimately, we need to inspire and motivate more people to get more involved in protecting local services and spaces and making their neighbourhoods better places to live. That’s what the Groundwork Community Awards are about - a way of celebrating the achievements of community groups and community leaders and helping others learn from their success.
The stories told by our winners are inspiring, reinvigorating and humbling. Behind every story there is a team of volunteers who deserve to share the spotlight. Our judges shortlisted 30 finalists from more than 600 applications which means there are tens of thousands more people doing great work in their communities who deserve our thanks too.
The future of our country feels very uncertain. One thing we can be sure of, however, is that it won’t be the politicians who bring us through this time of turbulence, it will be the people. In particular it will be the people who are giving their time to ensure other people have a better life and a better place to live. So, whatever the outcome of Brexit negotiations, whatever the political fallout and whatever the ramifications for trade and the economy, building more resilient communities has to be part of the deal.
Post by Graham Duxbury,
CEO of Groundwork