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Regenerative resilience and the role of communities

With the launch of Common Vision’s report Towards Regenerative Resilience, James Goodman, Local Trust’s director of partnerships and learning, explores why building well-prepared, resilient communities is essential in an age of permanent crisis.

In 2009, the UK Government’s then Chief Scientific Adviser, John Beddington, gave a speech warning of a perfect storm that would build towards the year 2030 and continue to intensify, as crises in food, energy and water supply converged.

He could not have foreseen the exact nature of the cascading series of crises we are experiencing in the 2020s, but he got the general flavour right. Alex Evans and David Steven explored something similar in their Long Crisis scenarios, which they developed for Local Trust as the pandemic began to hit.

Though we might hanker for the relative stability and certainty of the past, that doesn’t look like it’s on the cards for some time to come. The question is therefore not how we can avert a ‘long crisis’ – though we must of course do everything possible to mitigate where we can – but how we can navigate it.

Navigating an age of permanent crisis

Part of the answer is to become more resilient as a society. Resilience can mean many things, as work for Local Trust by Common Vision sets out in Towards Regenerative Resilience: Cultivating community capacity in times of crisis.

Drawing on research by Donella Meadows and others, they identify three different approaches to resilience.

  • One, ‘static resilience’, is the ability to withstand shocks without bending or buckling under pressure. They represent this form of resilience with the image of a dam, holding back a huge volume of water.
  • Second is ‘elastic resilience’, the ability to spring back into shape when stretched. This is represented by a bouncy ball.
  • The third approach is ‘regenerative resilience’, or the ability to learn and evolve through change, represented by a forest.

While much of the rhetoric about ‘building back better’ after Covid drew on models of static and elastic resilience, surely it is regenerative resilience that is needed for us to successfully navigate an age of permanent crisis. And it is here that strong local community plays a critical role.

The project of a generation

Throughout the pandemic, Local Trust explored – with a wide range of partners, through events, conversations and research – the role of community action in maintaining the critical systems that people rely on.

Most obviously in the food system, but also in social care, education, digital connectivity, access to nature and open spaces, and in the energy system, bottom-up community action kept things moving – an extraordinary mobilisation of community power.

But many people live in places where this kind of activity is practically out of reach – where a lack of places to meet, an absence of the social fabric that makes a place into a community, and levels of deprivation unchanged in decades, despite a succession of government programmes, prevents people from participating in public life.

Perhaps the most telling statistics emerging from the pandemic were those that showed that ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods – poor communities deprived of social capital and social infrastructure – had fewer mutual aid groups and received less Covid-related funding than other communities – even though they needed both more.

That some neighbourhoods are held back in this way is a moral injustice. These communities are markedly less resilient and less well prepared for the turbulence of the 2020s and beyond, and so people living in them stand to suffer more. And our country as a whole is significantly less resilient by allowing such areas to exist.

Rectifying this situation should be a priority for any government and is the project of a generation. Long term funding and support, as well as trust and patience, are needed so that people living in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods can step forward and restitch the delicate, complex fabric of their communities.

Building the resilience of communities

To varying degrees, we have seen this happen in 150 places through Big Local funding: small neighbourhoods awarded a million pounds each for residents to spend on improving their local communities over a period of 10 to 15 years.

Resident groups have spent their money on everything from community centres or skate parks to festivals or wind turbines, and each individual project has had its impact.

The net effect however has been an increase in the collective self-efficacy of a place; a foundational investment in the functioning of a community. And we saw during the pandemic how Big Local groups, with their local knowledge, relationships and resources, helped keep people fed, warm, healthy and connected.

We need now to build on the experiment of Big Local, targeting ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods that are most in need of change with a new programme of foundational funding and support. This is what a Community Wealth Fund would do.

Local Trust is part of an alliance of over 600 organisations from civil society, local government and the private sector, calling on the government to direct significant and sustained investment to ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, using funds deemed dormant assets.

A Community Wealth Fund would provide long-term funding at a hyper-local level for communities to come together, make decisions, drive change and build community confidence and capacity. There is a window of opportunity now to build the resilience of communities, and of the country as a whole, during an era of permanent crisis.

About the author
James Goodman

James is the Director of partnerships and learning at Local Trust