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The initial response to this crisis has grown out of the grassroots, we must foster and support it

Matt Leach, CEO at Local Trust, reflects on the impressive response of communities to COVID-19

Since the start of March, we have seen communities across the country organise and mobilise to support their neighbourhoods through turbulent and challenging times.  Mutual aid groups have sprung up in astonishing numbers to coordinate voluntary responses to the crisis; and smaller community-based organisations have rapidly repurposed themselves to provide vital support to local people, even whilst struggling with a financial impact from the crisis even more daunting than that faced by parts of the private sector.

While the headlines might have been grabbed by the half a million online volunteers sourced through the GoodSam app, in many areas local people made a decision to step up as ‘first responders’ to the crisis well before the public services were able to organise.  At a micro-level, huge numbers have created street level WhatsApp groups to coordinate support for neighbours having to self-isolate (currently a lifeline for my 86 year-old mother).

Others have stepped up to the challenge of organising food parcels to those in need or coordinating other volunteer led activity.

Several weeks in, some local groups are still co-ordinating frontline activity locally, whilst others have begun working in partnership with their local authority and other agencies to ensure that the needs of their communities are met.  What is clear, already, is that – at a time of crisis – some of the boundaries and rigid demarcations that divided the responsibilities of the state and those that come out of mutual reliance, obligations and reciprocal relationships that underpin communities have begun to blur.  This dynamic – explored at some length in Paul Colliers fantastic Future of Capitalism and, in a different way, in New Local Government Network’s Community Paradigm – may be something we will need to collectively return to as we start to work through an approach to rebuilding society and economy in a post-COVID world.

At Local Trust, we have had a direct view of the speed and depth of community response across the 150 areas that are part of the Big Local programme.  Big Local is a unique funding experiment putting £1.1m directly into the hands of local people to use, over 10-15 years, to improve quality of life in their communities.  The programme is less about the money and much more about supporting the careful building and nurturing of community capacity and leadership in areas that might not in the past have benefited from that sort of resource. It has helped enable some amazing projects and initiatives to take place since its launch in 2012.

And, over recent weeks, it has provided some brilliant examples of how local communities can step up to the mark at a time of national crisis.

Faced with the prospect of all community activities ceasing as a result of the Prime Minister’s announcement of a lockdown on 23 March, the immediate response from Brinnington Big Local in Stockport, was to keep their community hub open as a focal point from which to provide support to residents. As a result they were inundated with food donations from residents and local businesses alike, allowing them to deliver 70 food packages to vulnerable residents in just 3 days. They have been able to simultaneously coordinate their response online; promoting vital services such as their suicide prevention hotline, through social media.

Residents in Firs and Bromford in Birmingham – coping with the immediate closure of local services aimed at the most vulnerable in their area – are trying new and innovative ways to maintain the mental and physical health of residents during the pandemic. Both Whitley Big Local, in Reading, and Dewsbury Moor in West Yorkshire have been using their local networks to coordinate the swathes of new volunteers that have stepped forward to help their community through this crisis.

And on a micro-scale, residents in Welsh House Farm in Birmingham have been delivering vegetable seeds for families in lockdown, to support food growing as part of a wider programme to maintain community life and activity over coming months.

What is clear, is that in those areas local residents will continue to play an incredibly important role, even as local authorities step up their activity. This is because, while the responses that these local areas are making to COVID-19 are very varied – they depend on the precise circumstances of the place – they all stem from a deep knowledge of the needs of the neighbourhood and the strong local networks necessary for solving problems effectively and efficiently.

But the impressive mobilisation across these and many other Big Local areas would not have been possible without focused support these areas had received, over an extended period of time, to build the confidence and capacity of local people to step up and make a difference.  Big Local areas were originally selected because they were places that had low levels of civic engagement, with communities that often lacked a focal point to pull them together and make a difference.  Some of those communities lacked safe places for the community to meet and activities to bring them together, building social bonds and pride in the neighbourhood.

It is already clear that the resilience and capacity of communities is very much linked to the strength of its basic civic infrastructure

– something explored in depth in Local Trust and OCSI’s recent research on Left Behind Areas.  As we seek to rebuild after COVID-19, against a background of further constraints on a public purse already stretched by its efforts to maintain a functional private sector and respond to higher levels of unemployment and deprivation, and what looks like a sustained hit to economic growth, the ability of local communities to come together and make a difference on their own account will be even more important.

We’ll be tracking the response of a sample of different communities to the COVID-19 crisis and their subsequent recovery in unique deep dive research we have commissioned, the details of which we will be announcing early next week, and we intend to provide rapid reports and analysis over coming months.  And we’ll shortly be launching a series of online discussions on the shape and nature of that recovery.  The Prime Minister said earlier this week “there is such a thing as society”.  This is a critical time to explore and understand what this means in practice.