The first 100 days of the new Parliament passed by quietly in mid-August. In this short time, the new Government has generated a variety of policy updates that have hit the headlines. From reforming the NHS, improving social care and shaking up the justice system; these policies all have one thing in common: the solutions must be people-centred and responsive to need.
In and amongst this narrative, there is a clear role for community-led activity to turn these policies into action. Community groups are experts about their areas; trusted by locals and committed to the individuals they serve. Put simply, they make life better because they are able to quickly and flexibly respond to the needs of the people who need them. So now, more than ever before, the public sector must work alongside individuals and communities to deliver public services across the policy spectrum.
One innovative way that the Government is enabling this to happen is through My Community. This is a package of support that is helping communities to take control over their land and buildings, services, planning and local economies through the Community Rights, introduced in the Localism Act 2011. My Community comprises several programmes: Our Place, Community Ownership and Management of Assets (COMA) and Neighbourhood Planning, which are delivered by Locality; Community Economic Development (CED), which is delivered by Co-operatives UK; and First Steps, which we are delivering here at the Community Development Foundation (CDF).
We are very proud to be delivering this programme, giving more communities a chance to shape their local area. CDF is passionate about helping communities to drive change locally and have seen how a community-centred approach can help reduce inequality and deprivation, encourage social cohesion and reduce the strain on public services.
About the First Steps programme
The First Steps programme was launched on 1 April 2015 and is helping 115 communities to identify important local issues that matter to them. It is designed to give small community groups the freedom to develop a community action plan to improve their neighbourhood and participants tend to be just starting along the path of community action. To support this activity, each area receives a grant of £2,500 towards resources to help write their community action plan, as well as training sessions and online learning materials.
Each project has a dedicated community development professional called a Relationship Manager to help guide the group, offering advice on their plan and helping them chose the best type of support from the package, in the same way that a consultant would help a new start-up write its business plan. So far, the Relationship Managers tell us that they are enjoying the programme because it gives them a unique opportunity to mentor and support a lot of people who are new to community activity.
My Community programmes
First Steps and Our Place sit side by side in the suite of programmes on offer through My Community. First Steps complements and broadens the activity of the Our Place programme to different types of communities, using a similar programme structure. The Our Place approach began as the Neighbourhood Community Budgets (NCB) programme, which ran in 12 pilot areas in 2012-13. It was then extended to 118 areas for the Our Place programme in 2014-15 and is running again this year with a further 64 areas.
To enable learning, discussion and sharing of best practice across the programmes, CDF also runs the My Community Network on our Just Act website (www.justact.org.uk) to give anyone involved in their community a place where they can chat to experts, access support and get in touch with others who are passionate about their community. All content is publically visible, with users needing to create an account to be able to contribute to discussions. It is the perfect place for public sector employees to dip in to see the variety of projects involved in the programmes and the types of activities that are taking place.
Meet the First Steps projects
First Steps projects are working across a variety of policy areas, such as getting people back into work, reducing social isolation, providing activities for children and young people and preventing crime and anti-social behaviour. They are an incredible example of the passion and will of community groups to improve people’s lives and society as a whole.
This ability of community groups to self-mobilise and address local issues was the key finding of our research, published in October last year, ‘Tailor-made: how community groups improve people’s lives’, which centred around the activities of small community groups, many of which were running on income of less than £2,000 a year. The research was called ‘Tailor-made’ because that’s exactly what community groups are; they evolve out of community needs, are led by local people and serve the people on their doorsteps. As a result, they provide services and activities that are a perfect fit for their communities and are delivering the people-centred approach to which so many service providers aspire.
For example in Newcastle, the First Steps project Surface Area Dance Theatre Community Interest Company (CIC) is hoping to diversify their activities by consulting with the local deaf community to inform what future activities should take place. Nicole Vivien Watson from the organisation said:
“We are aiming to change the perception of disability. Our participants have an abundance of creativity and we aim to change the landscape of our community by unveiling the talents and the visibility of disabled arts practitioners, activists and talents of the future”.
Whereas the ‘Bringing Words To Life’ project in Blaydon-on-Tyne, Co. Durham is all about creating a space for the community creativity – in turn helping to spark growth to the local economy. They are looking to set up a community hub to provide literacy workshops for all ages and affordable office space for local social enterprises; complete with a community café. Melanie Cornish from the project said:
“We are a relatively new organisation so this programme allows us to test the waters with our ideas to see if what we want to do is appealing to our community. The First Steps training on offer tackles some of the issues we may come up against and not to be involved in the programme would really have been a bad strategic move on our part”.
Lastly the ‘A Team’ project in Haringey, North London is aiming to develop a dynamic Mental Health Community Network for vulnerable young people and adults. Yasnie Rolston from the project said:
“First Steps is an excellent opportunity for us to engage with members of our local community who are experiencing mental ill health. For many, the support they receive is inadequate leading to erratic access to health and social care services and lack of participation in social activities.
“Therefore the aim of our Mental Health Matters Project is to reach out to vulnerable people living with mental ill health who are facing social isolation, disconnect, acute loneliness and fragmented support to find out what matters to them and how their experiences can be improved.”
At the half-way point of this programme, we can already see how First Steps is giving a new wave of communities the confidence and support they need to take action and improve their local areas. The projects are from across all nine regions and cover a plethora of policy areas – showing that there is real engagement and desire in communities to step up and make a change. By working in partnership with these groups, the public sector is likely to find a welcome ally in turning the Government’s reforms into successful services that work for individuals and improve people’s lives.
CDF runs the First Steps programme and the My Community Network, which are both part of the My Community package run by Locality. These support programmes and network are funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).
For more information on the First Steps programme please visit www.mycommunity.org.uk.
First published in Government Business