This article is part of our Local Week series, a collection of articles focusing on the challenges facing communities as they confront the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can find the other articles in the series on our Local Week page.
Where you live and who your neighbours are have never mattered more. In lockdown, the proximity of shops, accessibility of green spaces and availability of practical help make all the difference. With nowhere else to go, immersed in a protracted global emergency, we recognise that the places where we live will shape our fortunes.
Local Trust has long understood that no two places are alike. The Big Local programme we run gives £1.15m to each of the 150 areas taking part and asks local residents to decide how they want to use this money to meet local needs and priorities. As a place-based funder we see that the unique, multifaceted combinations of history, resources, connectedness and local culture strongly influence how residents respond to the funding and support we offer. A huge variety of community-led activities has emerged since the programme began in 2012.
That diversity – connected to the identity of a place and the people who live there – is key to understanding how communities respond to the current crisis. Through our frequent, sometimes daily, contact with the residents delivering the Big Local programme in their communities – volunteers who form a ‘Big Local partnership’ to take decisions – we are learning about the challenges these places are facing and the role they are playing in a time of crisis.
So far we’ve learned that many Big Local areas have stepped up – they already have the connections and area knowledge to be effective; many are providing life-saving support – they’re also providing non-urgent but life-enhancing activities that lift spirits; and many are doing what no-one else could do. Alongside this we’ve learned that some Big Local partnerships have become less active and are not able to offer support because of their own circumstances, while many have overcome barriers to move their meetings and activities online.
The value of hyperlocal power
Tailored, hyperlocal support – based on detailed knowledge of individuals of communities, often at street or household level – prevents well-intentioned initiatives missing their target, and becoming unhelpful or even damaging. An example from one Big Local area is the distribution of much-needed food packages from the local council to vulnerable residents. This included one elderly resident who is blind, diabetic and gluten intolerant being provided with food that she was unable to eat for medical reasons. Luckily, she could rely on the Big Local partnership for support, who intervened and ensured she received food she was able to eat.
In Firs and Bromford near Birmingham, a dining table, pre-set for a formal meal, appeared in a popular local woodland soon after the COVID-19 lockdown began. Over the following days, community members anonymously contributed more objects to the scene – candlesticks, an empty wine bottle, teddies in trees, a bird feeder – sharing a socially-distanced feast together. No-one knows who put it there, but it’s a place where creativity – including a zombie movie – has been at the heart of how residents have responded to a range of local issues.
Not far away, Arley & Ansley Big Local in Warwickshire are running a remote crafts club for 8-18 year olds, dropping off supplies to everyone who is taking part. The idea grew from several years providing youth services in the area, leading to well established relationships with local families.
Par Bay Big Local, in Cornwall, has set up a vegetable-growing box scheme, distributing the basic supplies such as seedlings, compost, pots and instructions so that people can learn a new skill and access fresh produce during lockdown. It complements the pick-your-own produce available in Par Bay’s community garden.
Many Big Local areas have developed well-established networks of local contacts that are proving vital. Because of this, they’re often found co-ordinating offers of help and support, using their experience and knowledge of small local charities and groups to make sure the individuals who need help are matched with those who can provide it. In rural North Somerset, the Radstock and Westfield Big Local partnership is filling the gap when people can’t access centrally-organised support. They’re helping a local community cafe deliver food to vulnerable residents, running a Baby Box project providing essentials for new families and supporting Family Futures, an organisation already working with vulnerable and at-risk families.
To be effective within the constraints of social distancing, many residents involved in delivering Big Local have had to overcome barriers. Following a rapid rollout of training and support from Local Trust many residents have learned how to get the best from WhatsApp, Zoom and other platforms. Many were previously unfamiliar with digital meetings and only have access to old or shared phones and computers to take part. Out of 150 Big Local areas, 99 and counting have signed up to Zoom premium, meaning they can now host meetings independently. Access to digital platforms enables Big Local areas to convene key meetings with local organisations, allocate funds, stay in touch with other groups and take decisions in a timely way.
Residents are sharing their new-found knowledge to help others connect online too. Riverside Big Local, in Essex, has moved its meetings onto Zoom and purchased 16 Zoom business licenses for other community groups in the area, along with a training offer, and has bought 25 tablets and are negotiating with a network provider to establish wifi hot spots in the area.
In Ramsey Big Local, youth clubs have moved online. The project manager has been broadcasting a weekly youth club from her garden and is now doing weekly Facebook Live events generating over 1,000 views.
These responses to COVID-19 are as varied as the places that inspired them. Most importantly, local people have the freedom and funding to decide what solutions they need and deliver them for their neighbours. These brilliant examples of voluntary action show local people stepping up to help their neighbours at a time of need. The resilience of residents – their ability to respond, mobilise and organise themselves in a time of crisis – will change outcomes for people and places.
Learning about the range of factors that affect how communities fare, and the sorts of help that can make a difference, is vital information. To capture the huge variety of responses by communities to the current crisis, Local Trust has commissioned rapid research with 25 different communities to inform the current response to COVID-19, and identify how local communities are best supported in the future.
The first bulletin from the research team was published today and offers a rapid review from the literature on disasters. It connects communities currently responding to COVID-19 to others who have faced major crises such as epidemics, floods, fires, earthquakes, wars and terrorist incidents. It provides a language to describe how communities forge new bonds and find common purpose, and identifies factors that may shape how well they fare during the urgent period of crisis and, later, in the slow business of recovery.
Among its key points, the research questions the idea that a community can withstand shocks if it is ‘resilient’, suggesting this does not recognise how communities are nested within wider power structures that largely shape their fate. It also proposes that the extent of existing social networks may be more important to measure than ‘social capital’, which is a popular but slippery term.
Finally, the research suggests shared social identity and a sense of being ’in it together’ may be key factors, leading to the quick formation of new groups. However, this bond may wane over time and as recovery experiences vary and social differences re-emerge.
Local Trust will be sharing the emerging questions and findings from the research through a series of briefings over 2020-21, alongside online discussions, blogs and reports. United by common cause and shared need we have a strong urge to help each other – we’re also keen to talk to others about what they’re seeing in local communities they know. Please do get in touch or find our ideas and information on Twitter #RespondRenew.