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How to… create resilient local communities

Resilient communities have resilient, co-produced institutions at their heart, argues Julian Dobson.

‘Bouncebackability’ is a favourite term of the former Northern Ireland footballer Iain Dowie. Given that one of his main claims to fame is the headed own-goal that put West Ham out of the League Cup on a miserable night in Stockport in 1996, he probably knows what he’s talking about.

When CLES chief executive Neil McInroy talks about resilience, he uses a slide with one word: ‘Boing!’ It’s the same idea: a place and community has the springiness and energy to bounce back from setbacks.

There’s more to resilience, as CLES argues, than simply being able to bounce back. Resilience is a combination of capacities and qualities that are for every day, crisis or no crisis. A resilient place is one not only of resilient individuals but of resilient institutions – economic, social and civic.

Resilience is a concept that has come to the fore in recent years, not only because of the economic downturn but through a growing realisation that the problems disadvantaged communities face can’t be solved simply through the provision of more services. The services have to do more than ensure survival; they need to create the capacity to thrive.

Newham Council has been exploring what this might mean in the second most deprived local authority area in England, and has concluded that the emphasis must be on reciprocity, not simply on service provision. Lambeth, another authority with high levels of deprivation, is trying to remodel itself as a ‘cooperative council’ where services are co-designed by the council and local residents.

The imperative to build resilience is becoming stronger as public services themselves become weaker. George Osborne’s March budget signalled further cuts in public services, and the 2015 general election is unlikely to shift the trajectory to any significant degree. Financial modelling last year by the Local Government Association shows a likely funding gap of £16.5bn a year by 2019/20.

The challenge is not just to do with the level of spending. My recent report for ResPublica, Responsible Recovery, argued that to build resilience we need to understand and work with the grain of what makes people tick – the strategies they use in constructing their lives – and the abilities and talents they can tap into, not just their needs.

CREATING PEOPLE-CENTRED INSTITUTIONS
At a neighbourhood level and in rural areas, ‘community anchor’ institutions can help to provide that link between public services and local people. They are organisations that have the reputation and trust that is accumulated through a long term commitment to the area; they have staff and volunteers who are known and respected; and, crucially, they sustain links between the neighbourhood and the wider local civic and economic activity.

Organisations like Coin Street Community Builders on London’s South Bank or the Goodwin Development Trust in Hull are classic examples of community anchors, providing jobs, services, local facilities and housing. But there are also institutions that may be more limited in their activities but play a similar connecting role: the parish church or mosque, the working men’s club, the village hall, the pub, post office or the library. Often their value is not recognised until they are lost.

When resilience is built, people are not only more able to withstand shocks and cope with difficulties: they become more willing to take risks and step out to help and support others. 

When resilience is built, people are not only more able to withstand shocks and cope with difficulties: they become more willing to take risks and step out to help and support others. They give more because they are more confident.

Walterton and Elgin Community Homes (WECH) shows how this can be achieved over time. Since 1992, several hundred homes in a corner of west London have been the standard-bearers of community control. Previously owned by Westminster Council, they were transferred to a resident-controlled housing association under the 1988 ‘tenants’ choice’ legislation following a campaign by residents against the council’s plans to sell the estate to private developers.

We have now had two decades to see how and whether such a model can work at a significant scale. WECH owns more than 600 homes, with occupants ranging from leaseholders to homeless families.

Surveys conducted by WECH show that 84% feel the landlord helps them to meet their neighbours; 79% say there is a good community life in the area; and 85% say the landlord plays an important role in fostering community and voluntary activities. More than nine tenths of residents feel secure in terms of their tenancy, compared with 62% under their previous landlord; and nine out of ten say they are proud of their homes, compared with two thirds under the previous landlord.

WECH is professionally run, but not distant: people say they can chat to the chief executive in the street. It takes family life seriously: tenants’ grown-up children are given priority for rehousing, building what it calls ‘co-located family networks’. In a cosmopolitan area with a high turnover of population such networks strengthen community cohesion. WECH found that 12% of its tenants had relatives within the community, in networks of between two and four houses.

Starting with the people and their priorities has led to some unusual and pioneering decisions. One WECH tenancy has been offered to a local policeman; in return he plays an active role in the community and responds to requests for help and information.

WECH believes community ownership helps people to feel healthier and happier because it gives them more control over their lives and environment. It gets the basics right, providing affordable and secure homes in one of London’s most deprived areas. Compared with expensive and intrusive government attempts to create ‘mixed communities’ elsewhere, it appears both more human and more effective.

Giroscope, a small housing charity in a neglected area of west Hull, shows how resilience-building can work at a hyperlocal scale. Giroscope renovates empty homes, providing work experience and training in practical building skills for people who are struggling to find jobs, and offering affordable housing to people who need it.

Human contact is at the heart of the way Giroscope operates.

By working within a small area where all its homes are within walking distance, Giroscope is able to build networks of near neighbours who help create stability within a vulnerable community.

Giroscope’s coordinator, Martin Newman, is clear that what Giroscope offers is not just housing – somewhere to live that matches the profile of the tenant – but a home. If you want to stay and put down roots, Giroscope won’t move you on or sell your house to raise capital.

Human contact is at the heart of the way Giroscope operates. By volunteering, people can prove themselves as reliable prospective tenants. ‘We get to know them and then they become candidates for housing,’ Martin says. ‘If people are working with us and they need somewhere to live we would help them. It’s trying to help people into a house they can afford in streets that suit them.’

‘Being an organisation that’s based in the community, that on the whole lives in the community, you get to know the intricacies of streets right down to quite a local level. That makes a huge difference.’

  • Responsible Recovery: A social contract for local growth is available to download from www.respublica.org.uk or here 

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