Citizen centred and future focussed: Community hubs during COVID-19

September 30, 2020

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by Lauren Pennycook, Senior Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

The COVID-19 emergency has confirmed that the needs of the most vulnerable in our society are holistic – food and fuel, medication and money matters – not fitting neatly into one service, sector or silo. So how were individuals’ bespoke needs met during the early stages of the crisis? Is the current system, in fact, set up to assess needs in the round, to both meet individuals’ needs now, and foresee further problems in the future?

The COVID-19 pandemic saw a suspension of the rules – of who organisations work with and why, how they deliver, and to whom. As barriers – real and cultural – were lifted, doors were opened, in many cases, to a single avenue for support. Across the UK, many local authorities chose to develop a community hub, bringing together council, community and citizen efforts to support residents in response to COVID-19. How did these new delivery models, bringing together citizen and state, volunteer citizen and voluntary sector, meet the ever evolving needs of citizens in an ever evolving external environment?

As part of its Covid and Communities listening project, the Carnegie UK Trust has spoken to key individuals and organisations at the centre of the COVID-19 response in four areas – North Ayrshire, Renfrewshire, Lancaster and Scarborough – to explore the role of community hubs in delivering support and re-defining the relationship between citizen and state. So what were the common experiences of community hubs across four very different areas, and what can these teach us about the delivery of public services in the 21st century?

Firstly, that although the hub structures themselves were new, pre-existing relationships and values were critical. Long-standing relationships facilitated the rapidity of the response; the secondment of public sector employees; and an understanding of how they would support citizens – with kindness and their needs at the centre. Organisations with established relationships – with each other and with the community – under one roof, with one value system, provided one simple, streamlined contact for those seeking support.

They were also responsive. The hubs were both informed about support that existed at a hyperlocal level and were careful and not duplicate, or take over from existing groups and small organisations, and also resolute in their refusal to stick to a static list of support. In Scarborough, prescription collection was supplemented with fixing broken glasses and delivering walking aids; in North Ayrshire, a wider understanding of citizens’ wellbeing meant that former library books and bedding plants were delivered alongside food parcels; and in Renfrewshire, volunteers walked dogs for those who were shielding. In a system that typically values equality and efficiency of service, the hubs provided a vehicle through which organisations could listen, respond to bespoke needs, and individualise support.

And finally, supporting the most vulnerable in our society coalesced different organisations, traditionally serving different demographics in different sectors, with different priorities and different targets, around a common goal. Sharing premises, a phone line, and a list of citizens requiring priority support boosted staff morale and the delivery of public services, as those with complex needs could receive support from a number of sources with a single call. With closer physical proximity, between the members of the Community Planning Partnership in North Ayrshire; Lancaster City Council, United Utilities, the NHS, Adult Social Care, and Lancashire Fire and Rescue; and the council, Health and Social Care Partnership and third sector in Renfrewshire, came closer coordination, information sharing, and both a wider and deeper reach into communities. And it need not cease with the emergency phase of the pandemic, with Age UK Scarborough and District and Scarborough, Whitby and Ryedale Mind choosing to co-locate for the foreseeable future.

And so the crisis, the most severe and enduring that many of us have seen in our lifetime, has also presented an opportunity for us to reconsider the model of delivering public services fit for 21st century society. To Build Back for the Better, our model of supporting citizens can be holistic, and developed and delivered closer to home. Our model can give people – from our volunteer citizens to our voluntary sector – permission to take control, and help people to help each other. Our model can learn from the community hubs – building in the local kindness, collegiate working, and future focus we saw during a time of national crisis. Our model can, with the same flexibility, responsiveness and nuance we saw in the community hubs during the emergency, support individuals holistically, empower communities completely, and improve the wellbeing of society significantly.