Community Planning During COVID-19

April 23, 2020

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

COVID-19 and Wellbeing Blogs: The Carnegie UK Trust works to improve personal, community and societal wellbeing. Many of the issues that we work on, and the partners and groups who we work with, are deeply affected by the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Over the coming weeks we’ll be sharing a series of blogs with reflections and questions across these different aspects of wellbeing. We are interested in learning from others, so please get in touch to share your reflections on how communities, networks and organisations are responding.

We are in a unique moment in human history. Perhaps like never before, communities across the UK are united in a common purpose – to support the most vulnerable in our society. From wellbeing checks on the elderly to WhatsApp groups to deliver essential supplies to those who are shielding, communities are coming together in extraordinary displays of compassion, empathy, and kindness.

On a larger scale and more formal footing, local authorities are leading the way. Closer to their communities than any other tier of government, councils and their counterparts across the sectors are extending, amending and embedding their support to communities during this challenging and unprecedented time. And this has called for the co-operation and collaboration of unusual friends – sport and social care; health and housing; and the police and private businesses.

This particular pandemic may be new, but the structures to facilitate effective partnership working are not. Community Planning across the UK provides the framework for organisations to come together to plan for, and operationalise, improved community wellbeing. It establishes community outcomes and collective leadership. It takes a long-term approach, helping a community to establish what it aspires to in the future across all the domains of wellbeing – the economy, society, the environment, and the degree of influence it has over decisions that affect it.

Even though the future feels uncertain, now is the time that a Community Planning approach can come into its own. The actions taken by local government and its partners at this time might feel almost contradictory to the normal ethos of Community Planning: they are short-term, immediate, and directed at singular demographics. And yet interventions are resolutely focused on community wellbeing, in a way that is more stark, more visible, and more worthy of celebration than ever before.

In Northern Ireland, distributing food packages to the vulnerable; supporting sports clubs to ensure their survival; and freezing rent increases is Community Planning at a time of crisis. It may not be branded as such, it may not involve the usual meetings, action planning teams, networks and forums, but it is Community Planning in an emergency situation. We’re seeing obstacles to full and active participation being overcome. We’re seeing the citizen being placed at the centre, beyond any statutory requirement. We’re seeing Community Planning in action.

And that is why we must learn from what has been achieved by organisations coming together in partnership at this time. How were the ‘barriers’ to co-operation overcome so quickly? How were resources – financial and human – discovered and redirected at such speed? Who no longer had to seek permission, or forgiveness, to collaborate effectively? And how were politics, organisational priorities, and single budget lines, parked so efficiently for a common purpose?

Because, as Henry Ford said, ‘coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success’. While Community Planning in Northern Ireland was progressing before the pandemic struck, COVID-19 has the potential to accelerate this way of working to achieve sustained success. We must capture what has worked well, nurturing the change in hearts, minds, culture, and skills, and embed this in the post-COVID-19 recovery phase. Although we do not know what our ‘new normal’ will look like, we do know the skills it will require – a relational approach; collaboration; and being citizen centred. Although we do not know when this will end, we do know that this can be a new beginning.