A sad day for community action – but not the end

This blog has been co-authored by Sian Lockwood of Community Catalysts, Alex Fox of Shared Lives Plus, Julie Stansfield of In Control, Ralph Broad of Inclusive Neighbourhoods and Sam Clark of Inclusion North. Our organisations’ partnership is called Inclusive Change.

The recent closure of the high-profile London and Suffolk Circles is sad news – but does not suggest that community-led action is an impossible dream as some commentators are saying.

At its most durable, community action is driven by the commitment and passion of local people keen to make a difference to their community. Take Debenham village in Suffolk for example. People realised that friends and neighbours with dementia were having to leave their community for care and came together to take action.   Over 100 people came to the first village meeting and agreed a long term vision of extra-care facilities in the village. They appointed an action committee and mandated them not just to deliver that vision but also in the meantime to ‘just do something’! With very little financial support from statutory sources, they have set up a range of activities and supports which help friends and neighbours with dementia to stay at home for longer. The pop-up dementia-friendly restaurant and local home-care agency staffed by local people snared my imagination but there are many other small and large initiatives that make a real difference to people’s lives – for example people really appreciate the local librarian’s visit to the bi-weekly Carers Café to help people access web-based information about dementia as well as the emergency weekend hotline staffed by volunteers. The action group (now 80+ strong) has learnt that initiatives work when they are led by local people – well-meaning help from professionals can be the kiss of death to a new project. As the co-ordinator of the action group Lynden Jackson says ‘professionals should only do what professionals can do – we’ll do the rest and tell them when we need them’

In our experience, the appetite for community enterprise is alive and well, but it needs a little encouragement and support to make a real difference to people’s lives. We know that sustainable enterprise starts with passion and a desire to make a difference – together with the kind of gritty determination to drive through the inevitable barriers that comes from an engagement of the heart. Local authorities do need to make an investment in that support – but just as importantly commit to getting out of the way when things are working well, and letting local people get on with delivering local solutions.

So the closure of initiatives as well-regarded and well-resourced as these Circles programmes is certainly something that should cause concern, but not despair. Community-action is still alive and well – and it’s the only hope for many of the lasting changes we need to see to our local areas.

Our five recommendations for community action that will last beyond the initial investment are:

  1. Community action has to be shaped and led by local people and their priorities: guidance and models brought from outside can be useful for giving people a sense of the possible, but must not be prescriptive.
  2. Community action initiatives must build on local initiative and must at all costs avoid replacing or undermining existing initiatives. Community asset mapping is always the first step.
  3. Community initiatives have to be affordable in the long term. Councils should review all existing and proposed initiatives to ensure they are sustainable, particularly where they have received significant initial investment or outside help.
  4. Where the investment case for community action is based on future savings offsetting high running costs, there must be clear evidence that the savings will be tangible and achievable. Local agencies must have a Plan B if savings aren’t achieved.
  5. Community action must have support at all levels: from the community, the officials and the politicians. Projects are most likely to be real and lasting where the initiative is community-led and addresses local people’s priorities.
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