The Connected Communities project is built around the idea that the key to more empowered communities is to bring people together. We have long argued that people’s social networks are the key to increasing their communities’ resilience, and that community regeneration attempts need to engage with and build on the problems and assets in these existing networks.
In our most recent paper, Power Lines, we argued that "the government’s efforts to build the Big Society" were "too focused on citizen-led service delivery", and that they should be more oriented towards “helping foster broad sociability and connections” at a community and neighbourhood level.
As such, we welcome the announcement that the Community Development Trust’s delivery of the Community First programme aims to “help communities come together […] to identify their strengths and local priorities, plan for their future and become more resilient”.
The plans, announced today, incorporate many elements long argued for by the RSA’s Connected Communities programme. These include an emphasis on increasing local people’s connections and agency, especially in areas with ‘thin’ social networks, the importance of mapping and visualising networks in order to uncover hidden potential, the importance that the private sector can have both as ‘hub’ and as source of mutually beneficial funding and support.
Power lines argued that “the Cabinet Office should decide how the Communities First Fund is allocated … by targeting the grants to support community groups to undertake activities which build and diversify users’ social connections”, in areas with low social capital and/or “thin social networks”.
From the information currently available it seems that the Community First fund - which will indeed be targeting some of its funding to more marginalised neighbourhoods – will be focused on encouraging people to give their time locally. Depending on how that time is given, this could indeed help foster better local connections. As shown by some of the case studies in Power Lines and in the wider literature, just ‘pitching in’ locally can greatly improve people’s confidence and help counter local isolation. However the project will need to deliver more than just increased volunteering levels.
Alison Seabrooke, chief executive of CDF, announced that the Community First fund aims to help local communities “realise” their “assets and aspirations”. This is definitely a positive step. RSA projects as a whole subscribe to an asset based vision of local development; the work we have done around both social and asset mapping really suggest that visualising what you have can be a great spur to feeling that you can build on it.
As ever, the proof of the pudding remains in the eating. We have argued for a need to identify those areas with thinner social networks and to evaluate whether government or other projects are indeed supporting the creation of more resilient networks. Will the data from these projects be made available for evaluation by the new ‘armchair auditors’, or will central government take advantage of its position to keep records on how projects improve local connectivity, as suggested in Power Lines?
Further, it seems that the funds are not targeted at any specific type of local group: it would be very beneficial to have an approach that really aims at including the isolated and those most at risk of isolation: the old, the unemployed, the long-term ill or disabled.
If community organising is to go further than the realms of the ‘usual suspects’ it needs to be carried out in unusual or at least innovative ways. Local people can help deliver meals on wheels with an extra serving of social contact, a football club can help connect the unemployed with employers, and helping people map their contacts can turn the isolated into the socially connected. The Communities First Fund contains some interesting and promising ingredients; let’s hope it’s cooked up in a way that lets them shine through.