Fostering community spirit

Results from research co-authored by us illustrated that the lockdowns may have amplified loneliness within urban environments, while village communities largely remained resilient. How can community spirit be extended into city living?

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Disconnected communities have been estimated to cost the UK £32bn per year. We recently co-authored Community Support & Life After Lockdown, the latest of the Resident Voice Index™ reports, which looked at how the sustained effects of the pandemic had impacted people’s levels of loneliness, resilience and optimism.

Part of that work meant reaching out to organisations that work at the sharp end of community support day in and day out. To gain a greater understanding of this landscape, we spoke with Rita Lawson, CEO of Tees Valley Rural Action, a charity based in the North East of England that works to connect and support those in villages and isolated rural areas.

Their remit spans around 800 km, with 90% of the population spread over five industrialised towns, including Stockton-on-Tees and Middlesbrough, along with two rural expanses around Darlington in the west and Redcar on the North York Moors.

This mix of city, suburb and village life gives Rita and her team a unique insight into the power of community spirit and social connection and how it can make a material difference in people’s lives. The team work to bring these communities together with an established approach to social inclusion and connectivity.

“The pandemic has highlighted how resilient rural communities are. They come together to look at an issue, alleviate it and move things forward” – Rita Lawson

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A clear illustration of the success that these programmes achieve is the Our Community Matters initiative, an inter-generational project, which was specifically designed to help combat isolation and loneliness through social interaction.

“We wanted to get younger and older generations together,” Rita explains. “We held a Christmas event and things escalated. There was a Lottery bid and it became a three-year project with a number of projects throughout. This included a sensory garden at Winyard OAP Home. There was a tea and scones day with the Sea Cadets and WW2 veterans. On the whole it was a fantastic project that did bring the generations together.”

Rita also recalled the team’s support of Big Local, the pioneering campaign where 150 communities around the UK were given £1m, with residents leading decisions in how to spend to improve their local area.

“We were helping the East Cleveland Villages Big Local with logistics and compliance. There were 10 volunteers to start with that quickly escalated to 80. There was a crew of cooks and meals distribution. We were able to do a doorstep health check on people to make sure they were ok and have a set of eyes on them at least once a day.”

This activity then morphed into a longer-term project when a local social club was taken over. The community set up a CIC, took on the lease and opened the Loftus Community Hub, which is now a thriving centre for local activity and inter-generation social connection. This was just one of the initiatives from the Tees Valley team.

“We always put community at the heart of what we do. We employ an asset based community development model where we give people the tools to do what they can for themselves. You’d be amazed at the skills within communities.”

Connecting communities

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When we spoke with Rita, we asked her view on what the key characteristics are that she sees, particularly amongst those in rural and village environments and how those could be interwoven into urban communities.

“People are quietly confident in solving issues for themselves if they are in a relatively small area. They are resilient and when there’s an issue or they’re faced with real dangers, they come together and don’t think about themselves.

“They will always be there in the background quietly. They might do small things like litter collection but as soon as there’s anything major, they are often the first responders and ones that start to lead.”

Echoing the results of the Community Support & Life After Lockdown survey, Rita went on to add: “The pandemic has highlighted how resilient rural communities are. They come together to look at an issue, alleviate it and move things forward for the benefit of themselves and their neighbours.”

Drawing on the strengths of rural communities, the team try to share experiences between the urban and rural residents they work with by fostering connections through collaboration. One project in particular is in the pipeline with farming communities: “We have a project brief with the farming fraternity, as they do get left out as it’s a very demanding occupation with unsocial hours. We want to do some work and have farmers invite people onto their farms.”

Circling back to the outputs of the Community Support & Life After Lockdown report, Rita has this advice for planners, policy makers and housing practitioners: “Housing Associations need to work with communities in putting together a meaningful strategy. Communities should be at the heart of all work done around the economy, skills agenda and even digital inclusion agenda. If you don’t invest in your communities and their social wellbeing, then all that work could be lost.”

- Adam Williams

More beautiful photography here from © Darren Price

Find out more about the work of Tees Valley Rural Action.

Read the latest of the Resident Voice Index™ reports.

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