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Community spirit Organising and deciding

Community spirit gets a boost thanks to Big Local

Community action during the pandemic has been further enhanced in areas as a result of Big Local support and funding, the latest report from the Our Bigger Story evaluation by the Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC) suggests. Mandy Wilson and Angus McCabe from TSRC take a closer look.

It’s not news to say that COVID-19 has demanded strength and resourcefulness from communities, or that the longer the pandemic has gone on, their energies to sustain action have been put to the test. In fact, our research exploring how communities respond to the pandemic has continued to demonstrate this. But, focussing on where we were, where we are now and where we are going, this research uncovers evidence of how community spirit has played out and how, in most cases this has been enhanced by Big Local support and resources.

Big Local partnerships are often the only ‘kid on the block’ with guaranteed resources to see them through difficult times”

As Building on Local, the latest Big Local report from Our Bigger Story – the long-term evaluation of Big Local – makes clear, now is an opportunity for new beginnings. Taking place during 2020, a year in which the pandemic disrupted accepted ways of working and interrupted Big Local plans and aspirations, the research reveals how Big Local areas were ready to respond thanks to years of laying foundations.

Big Local partnerships are often the only kid on the block with guaranteed resources to see them through difficult times and this has always enabled them to think about the future. But, COVID-19 has further demonstrated that Big Local funding and support has enabled residents to make a difference when it mattered most, in stepping up to support their communities. It is striking that Big Local partnerships have managed to sustain and adapt their responses to the pandemic as it has evolved. The rapid adoption of Zoom has helped, though what has been missed, universally, is the absence of face-to-face human connections – especially during lockdowns.

Many Big local partnerships have been more proactive and outward facing in engaging residents, have built stronger connections with other agencies”

Above and beyond the basics

Notably, the 15 Big Local partnerships participating in the Big Local programme evaluation (Our Bigger Story) are all still functioning and continuing with long term plans. The ability of Big Local partnerships to retain some community governance during the crisis of COVID-19 has been remarkable. Many are adapting, as we all are, to meet new challenges. Partnerships are finding there are changing needs in their communities, with rising levels of mental distress and people struggling to pay utility bills, and this is likely to continue as the crisis goes on and social and economic inequalities deepen.

For some this will mean a shift in focus, for many it will require flexible ways of working to accommodate ‘a new normal’. It’s also likely that groups will invest time and energy in renewing community-level relationships that have been built despite, or because of, the pandemic. Indeed, the research shows that many Big local partnerships have been more proactive and outward facing in engaging residents, have built stronger connections with other agencies and have identified new priorities ahead to tackle emerging issues and changing needs, such as digital inclusion and counselling services.  


Because of the programme’s place-based, resident-led nature, what legacy will look like in each area is likely to be very different”

Belief in Big Local for lasting change

Now, Big Local communities need to believe in themselves as agents for lasting change beyond 2026 when the programme ends, and to work with others to make that happen. Based on the evidence gathered throughout 2020the evaluation team is hopeful that the value of long-term funding will be illustrated by a legacy of some kind across all Big Local areasand because of the programme’s place-based, resident-led nature, what this will look like in each area is likely to be very different. For some, it’s a community building or a robust organisation committed to lasting change. In other places it’s a community where more people are active and engaged or a shift in ethos and culture that preserves resident-led change and builds ‘can do’ attitudes locally.

Local Trust funding and support has been integral to sustaining activity in the short to medium term and it’s fair to say that some Big Local partnerships appear to have really come into their own in 2020. What we can see clearly now is that not only did the strong foundations Big Local helped to build in communities predate the crisis, they have provided a solid place for partnerships to respond to it and will continue to adapt to achieve long-term change as the immediate crisis fades.