Paul Gutherson is the Empowering Places Programme Manager at Centre4 in Grimsby. Here, he reflects on the potential for post COVID-19 recovery in communities and tries to make sense of the reports, articles, posts and tweets that he has read and conversations he has had over the past few weeks.
These include webinars; the ideas of Local Area Coordination/Community Catalysts; the work of the New Economic Foundation; Power to Change’s “Local Heroes” report; Kate Raworth’s “Doughnut Economics“; and blogs such as David Floyd’s “Beanbags and Bullshit“.
"Community spirit is everywhere. When it is properly resourced and organised, it becomes the key not just to tackling COVID-19 but also to unlocking better social outcomes and more resilient local economies in the future."
The community response to COVID-19 has been positive and speedy. So too, public sector organisations and private sector businesses have moved quickly to adapt and support the people living in their neighbourhoods – reinforcing the truth that we have known all along that we are part of a random collection of people, a local social network, a community, a neighbourhood, a place. It has shown we are NOT a set of economic units and actors and shouldn’t be reduced to such.
Whether we work in a privately owned business, a social enterprise, a community group or a public sector body, we all work for organisations that are, as David Floyd calls them, ‘vehicles for action’; and whether we like it or not (and whether we call it surplus or profit), we all need to generate income to sustain the action. People, and groups of people, form collectives or companies to do things – sometimes they are community groups, sometimes they are private businesses but very rarely is the sole purpose to make money. We all provide a service and we all care about our community and customers. COVID-19 has brought this into sharp focus with entrepreneurs, businesses and community groups all shifting from what they usually do to act for the greater good – making hand sanitiser instead of gin or cardboard desks for people working from home for the first time; picking up prescriptions instead of bingo nights; or hosting online fitness videos instead of running gym classes.
We might have done some shopping for a neighbour that can’t go out but then we talk to them as people, not as someone who needs help but as an equal, and we find out that working out how the heck Netflix actually works would make their life truly joyful. Why have we all done these things? Because we all want people to live a healthy and purposeful life, we all want to live in a place that is ‘nice’ and we are all willing to take action to make that happen.
COVID-19, and our response to it, has shown how “community-led services and local people know those they serve well, can often support them through difficult times and prevent their lives deteriorating further” because we listen and then act on that conversation. We are not based on seemingly arbitrary thresholds of service or move on because that isn’t what we deliver or isn’t the focus of our business.
We need to build on the idea that “cooking for the person living alone next door isn’t just providing a meal, it’s building social connections and adding meaning to everyone’s life, which often results in less need for formal services”. But this is not a ‘care service’, a ‘health service’ or even a ‘wellbeing service’; it is simply communities looking after themselves, finding ways to support people when they need it, and we all need it sometimes. The thing to note here though is that just because it isn’t a ‘service’ that can be named, systemised and reduced to a flowchart, it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be funded. It still needs people, time, coordination and resources.
I am positive that we can build on this renewed recognition and realisation that, regardless of whether we are public, private or community owned, we are (mostly) striving for the same outcomes. The post COVID-19 recovery should be built on the community networks and spirit seen during the lockdown period. The local economy we create should be characterised by:
- A lack of artificial barriers between sectors
- New measurements of prosperity and success that, as Kate Raworth says, recognise when we are thriving not growing
- A recognition that putting people in ‘boxes’ is not helpful – they are not patients, customers, volunteers; they do not have mental health needs, disabilities, dependency issues; they are all people, individuals with complex lives that are sometimes difficult, sometimes joyful and, if we take time to listen to them and work with them, we can find ways to help them in a way that is meaningful and that can help them to help others when they are able
- Local knowledge at the heart of neighbourhood based networks, possibly using a Local Area Coordination approach (see the work of Community Catalysts), that empowers local groups of people to build meaningful support and community-led services
- Kindness, connection and collaboration