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Invest Local lessons from lockdown

April 30th 2020

Chris Johnes outlines the lessons from lockdown across thirteen Invest Local communities

open university partnership with bevan foundation

Our work at Building Communities Trust (BCT) involves supporting the development of community capacity and resilience. Through our Invest Local programme, we work with 13 communities across Wales.

During the coronavirus outbreak, the focus of our work has shifted and we’re currently supporting these communities to provide emergency support: food provision, practical support for people in self-isolation and, increasingly, help with wellbeing and tackling the impacts of isolation.

We have provided funding for all these activities – in some cases within days of lockdown. We have also connected community groups across Wales, so they can learn from each other’s experiences and solve problems together.

What’s worked well?

Most community groups grasped the scale of the problem immediately and identified what methods they had for helping people. Funding for emergency work was made available quickly (although inevitably public sector systems have been slower than private trusts and crowd funding).

Community groups and organisations have come together, and new partnerships have developed with public bodies and housing organisations. In some areas, the coordination of volunteer action between local authorities (LAs), County Volunteer Councils (CVC’s) and community groups has been seamless, with a clear flow of information and sharing of resources. Where this has worked well, the CVCs have been the critical glue.

Volunteers have been identified quickly, thanks to the decision to sign up volunteers locally in Wales (rather than the single point of contact in England). Volunteers have also gone directly to projects they already know, and to the large Mutual Aid network.

Mixed successes

Food banks are an invaluable resource in these circumstances, but some have struggled to stay open because of a lack of volunteers (many are older or vulnerable), the closure of premises, and reductions in supplies and donations.  While supermarkets have recognised the urgency of the situation and continue to provide surplus food, their own stocks are more stretched, so emergency projects are buying more fresh food than normal.

Another area of mixed success is the ability of local groups to identify the people that need support. This has varied significantly, depending on the quality of local networks and cross-organisational working.

Many areas are finding they have more volunteers than they can use. Others have linked really well with Mutual Aid groups, while some treat them a little suspiciously as they are outside the ‘system’.

What hasn’t worked so well?

In some areas, CVCs seem to have been marginalised by local authorities –a missed opportunity to link community-level provision with central LA planning and resources.

There have also been several barriers to people being able to access support. The prevalence of judgemental attitudes towards poorer residents (we’ve seen this from local authorities, and some charities and volunteers) has restricted the flow of support. There is also clear evidence of some people simply not getting information about emergency support, and either missing out or taking unnecessary risks.

The five-week wait for universal credit puts additional strain on families, especially those new to the system. And although we totally support the shift to cash payments for families in receipt of free school meals, this has caused some delays in people accessing support.

Key lessons

This initial response to Covid-19 has highlighted two things.

Firstly, coordination between CVCs and LAs is critical to make support systems as universal as possible. Local community capacity means some areas will be covered better than others, but often they are the areas of greatest need.

Secondly, informal groups like Mutual Aid need to be encouraged to be part of wider support networks everywhere, recognising that they can be a valuable resource in supporting communities.

Chris Johnes is Chief Executive of Building Communities Trust

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