Getting the role of community anchors understood
One of the most important stories we heard during our work with Space to Connect projects has been how neighbourhood based community organisations (we use the shorthand term community anchors) responded so quickly to the pandemic.
They refocused their work to connect with vulnerable and isolated people in their communities, prioritising services that focussed on basics needs such as food security and addressing social isolation.
Much of this has been recognised by national organisations and think tanks such as Locality and New Local. In our interviews with community organisations people told us that they hoped that this practical response would lead to a change in the way that community anchors are understood and supported by local decision makers.
There are some hopeful signs here. There are a growing number of local authorities who recognise the importance of changing the relationship with citizens and communities. Similarly, in the health world, Primary Care Networks could provide an opportunity to develop a more collaborative neighbourhood focus.
However, in our interviews despite the important role of community anchors and local ‘hubs’ in the pandemic it was clear that the role of this sort of community infrastructure in a local authority area is not always understood and does not generally inform decision making and funding.
As the learning partner in Space to Connect we responded to the experience of the organisations we interviewed by developing a discussion tool for local authority and national decision makers that aims to raise the profile and highlight the value of working with community anchors.
This tool is very simple - it is intended to be used in an already established meeting such as a Health and Wellbeing Board or a council committee and only need last 20 minutes or so.
The aim is that having a structured discussion about community anchors in meetings such as these would in itself be a positive step forward!
The tool provides examples of what community anchors did during the pandemic and then suggests that attendees have a discussion based on the following simple questions:
- How is the role of Community Anchors understood at place level - for example is how is their contribution to health and wellbeing understood compared to other parts of the system such as education, health and employment
- Which plans and strategies explicitly recognise the contribution and role of community anchors as part of the local system?
- How is the voice of Community Anchors and the communities who are involved in them heard at a place level?
- How is funding to community anchors coordinated between key commissioners such as local government and the NHS?
- Is there a clear plan to ensure that all communities - in particular those who experience inequality and disadvantage - have access to a community anchor organisation?
The process of developing the tool was iterative and involved discussions with commissioners and community anchors. One of the issues raised was the need to be clear about the specific role that community anchors play within a place that is distinct from the wider voluntary and community sector.
Community anchor organisations act as cogs of connection. That is, they are rooted in place, there for the long term and consequently have a deep understanding of the area and strong connections with local people.
Wider conversations about the voluntary and community sector (which can include national charities with multi-million pound turnovers alongside small volunteer run community groups) can mean that the unique role of community anchor organisations is not understood or lost. This distinction becomes even more difficult in a period of cuts to local funders, when the local voluntary sector can - for justifiable reasons - feel very sensitive to some parts of the sector apparently making a ‘special case’ about their contribution.
Nonetheless our findings show that community anchor organisations are a vital part of the local infrastructure that is needed to retain and build social connections, address loneliness and build community resilience – something that was vital during the pandemic and will be more so in our recovery.
Download the discussion tool
The discussion tool is available to download from the Space to Connect project page.
Mark is a Professor with an interest in local democracy and health inequalities he works in the field of local health systems, the voluntary sector and active citizenship.