Conversations with communities: Sharing common experiences from Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales

July 1, 2020

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by Hannah Ormston and Rachel Heydecker, Policy and Development Officers; and Pippa Coutts, Policy and Development Manager, Carnegie UK Trust

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.


Since lockdown, and in response to the Covid-19 emergency, the Trust has undertaken a listening project with individuals from communities and local government across the UK, aiming to distill some of the more positive stories of change, and more broadly, to capture experiences from a range of perspectives to draw learning from. Our conversations have indicated the potential for change and for our future wellbeing.

Last week, the Trust brought together people working in local authorities, the public and third sector to provide a space to share learning. From Broughshane and Fermanagh in Northern Ireland; to Paisley, East Ayrshire and Dumfries in Scotland; Merthyr Tydfil in Wales; and Camden, Lancaster, Scarborough and Todmorden in England; we heard from a diverse range of communities – large and small – about their experiences. Each provided insightful and thought-provoking stories of resilient, place-based responses to the crisis. One of the key themes beginning to emerge is that the pandemic has necessitated the state doing what only it can do – such as providing emergency services; scaling up the NHS; and releasing funding to all sectors. At the same time, the community has done what it can do best – providing tailored local knowledge and support.

The growth of volunteering and small-scale community organisations through the fire-fighting period

Our conversations to date have highlighted a significant change both in the volume of those giving their time, energy and expertise, and the demographic of those that are volunteering. For some, volunteering has offered an opportunity to reconnect with those in their local community, providing valuable additional resource.

Participants explained how they were able to build on the strengths and groups that existed before the crisis – in one community drawing on volunteers that were already engaged in environmental work, and in another, building on the resources of a local church to create their own system which matches requests for help with a volunteer.

The group spoke about the unique power of people within communities to understand and react to local needs, and reflected on the best way to support and facilitate people going forward.

Partnership working with communities and between organisations

Partnerships between the third sector and local authorities have been key to providing a quick response to emergency needs. Most local authorities have set up hubs for coordinating and delivering food, medicine and providing information to people on the government’s shielded list and beyond. Our conversations show that the hubs’ operation has varied from area to area, but in most cases, it has been a combined response from the voluntary sector, reaching into the community, and the local authorities, at least acting as conduits for funding.

Where it has worked well, both the public sector and the third sector – alongside communities – have taken on the roles they do best, with the response ‘playing to existing strengths’. For example, Council workers with DBS/PVG checks contacted individuals to ask if they wanted support and, with their consent passed the information to community workers to provide practical assistance. Existing partnerships – or working groups like Voluntary Sector Chief Executives Groups in Scarborough – facilitated this rapid collaborative response. But it was helped by other factors, not least a “shared passion” to assist and support local people. And, in some places, there has been a greater recognition of the contribution the third sector can make to community wellbeing: one participant said, “we are used to the third sector being seen as a lesser partner: but not anymore”. This recognition has been accompanied by (temporary) funding that has facilitated the involvement of smaller groups, including some who previously had relied solely on volunteers’ goodwill.

The meeting highlighted that the people in the Covid-19 partnerships are both optimistic and worried for the future. What will happen to the locally representative community groups when the funding is stopped? How can volunteering and a shared sense of community spirit be maintained when everyone is no longer bound by the same lock-down rules? Local authorities have shown both what they can do, and what can be done when there is a more equal partnership with communities. The Trust’s Covid-19 community conversation participants largely think this should act as a springboard for localism – more power and funding both to Local Authorities and to towns, neighborhoods and villages.

The impact of the emergency on social infrastructure

The pandemic caused many key elements of social infrastructure such as libraries and community halls to temporarily close, but creative alternatives have emerged to encourage connections within communities. As well as activities and groups moving to online spaces, communities have been using their public assets creatively: hosting bingo nights on wide streets, with many more people enjoying their local parks and green spaces.

As restrictions are gradually lifted but with Covid-19 remaining part of life for the moment, moving activities outside offers a potential solution. Experiences from across the UK were shared by participants – from inclement weather requiring a circus Big Top to be lowered, to the possibilities of creating a ‘Wimbledon style’ retracting roof over public space. Each demonstrates the need for a placed-based approach.

Local voices: who’s at the table

Participants spoke about challenges around the ‘hypercentralisation’ of decision making during the pandemic, and the need to support a more equitable process so that civil society also has a voice in decisions. This was likened to making sure local voices were supported to be ‘at the table, not just on the menu.’ There was a real sense that local groups and local authorities knew what was best for their communities, and that civil society in particular was able to be agile and respond quickly to emerging needs. However, concerns were raised about the future economic impact of COVID-19, which could lead to cuts to local government and the third sector – to what extent would local organisations be in a position to continue their work, and local authorities be resourced to lead a localised recovery.

The COVID-19 emergency has let us see what only the state can do  – set up hospitals; fund research into a vaccine; shift resources to the front line – and what only communities can do – mobilise and respond quickly by building on existing relationships; pool collective resources; think creatively about what assets are available. Our conversations so far have demonstrated that there is value in bringing together the shared experiences of people working across the UK, and within each sector.  Whilst each community has its own unique story, collaboration, supporting each other and sharing learning will be crucial for moving forward.

 

This post was co-authored by Hannah Ormston, Rachel Heydecker and Pippa Coutts.