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Wed, 8 July 2020

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Community organisations have a vital role to play in the coronavirus recovery

Community organisations have a vital role to play in the coronavirus recovery

It's clear that places with existing community organisations have fared much better than those who have had to start from scratch, says Karin Smyth MP | Credit: PA Images

5 min read

As we recover from this crisis, we must create a more equal, sustainable and supportive society in which community organisations are supported to have a leading role.

Something that has particularly struck me about the coronavirus response - certainly here in my Bristol South constituency - is just how well entrepreneurial community organisations have adapted to support local people through this crisis.

Working with the local council and healthcare providers, community organisations have pulled together to ensure that help gets where it is needed. 

They've worked together, at speed, to build an app that links volunteers with requests for help, to launch new food banks and are constantly adapting to meet local needs.

It’s something outlined in a recent report from Locality– which supports community organisations across the UK.

The 'We Were Built For This' report takes its title from the Knowle West Alliance - one of the council's community hubs delivering support in my constituency. “It feels like we were built for this", said Heather Williams, who has been working hard to oversee this work.   

It's clear that places with existing community organisations have fared much better than those who have had to start from scratch.

Like many community organisations across the UK, the women-led Alliance was formed to bring together community organisations and join up services locally in an area which faces ongoing challenges relating to unemployment, social inclusion, health inequalities and educational attainment and aspiration.

Thankfully, in areas such as this the foundations are often already there on which the coronavirus response be delivered locally - council community development officers working closely with communities to address ongoing issues.

It's clear that places with existing community organisations have fared much better than those who have had to start from scratch.

The organisations I have been in touch with responded to the crisis by partnering with the Labour-run council to develop a rapid response system that people in their community could access for advice and support.

Through existing and newly-established support hubs, they offer befriending services and DBS-checked volunteers to help with dog walking, prescriptions and food shopping and have set up new foodbanks in a matter of days.

This innovation has seen them quickly build and mobilise an army of volunteers to help fulfil this public service role – while facing huge holes in their finances due to the impact of Coronavirus, lost revenue from community buildings, charity shops and fundraising events.

It is this entrepreneurial spirit that has seen voluntary organisations moving away from relying on these to run more like a business and generate their own income streams.

They are being hit just as hard as local businesses yet have been unable to access some of the support available to local businesses, for example they can't furlough staff who are needed to deliver the response. 

It's clear that the £750m package of Government support for charities falls short of what is needed to

The NCVO estimates that, nationally, charities are facing a loss of £4.3bn of income during the first three months of lockdown.

With these figures in mind, it's clear that the £750m package of Government support for charities falls short of what is needed to, not only get charities through the crisis, but to ensure the long-term sustainability of these operations. 

And it's not just established charities I'm referring to, we've seen lots of new grass-roots operations launched - such as The National Food Service, which is delivering thousands of home-cooked meals to people in several big cities in the UK - and mutual aid groups.

Sustainable funding is an ongoing challenge for them as they largely rely on individual donations to keep them going. Most organisations of this type will not benefit from Government support but have quickly proven their worth - meeting the needs of local people during this crisis.

But the need will not disappear with the virus, in fact, it may be greater due to the impact of the coronavirus restrictions. 

We're already seeing a notable rise in unemployment, money worries and mental health problems here in Bristol South and I know we're not alone in this - the impact of this is being felt nationally. The outlook is grim - with job vacancies now at a record low, apprenticeships falling by 50% and more than 9 million people on furlough.

We must find a way to support communities with the fallout of coronavirus and community organisations have a vital role to play; but they can't run on praise and goodwill. 

Statistics show a substantial rise in the number of people reporting high levels of anxiety at the moment and experts expect to see this rise further as the financial strain hits many families.

We must find a way to support communities with the fallout of coronavirus and community organisations have a vital role to play; but they can't run on praise and goodwill. 

Locality’s report recognises this .It outlines how community organisations have been quick to adapt their services, integral to the overall response and in a good position to harness the community spirit during this crisis.

It notes that this proved most effective in areas such as mine, where those collaborative relationships were already in place. 

And it proposes measures which support a community-powered economic recovery, which may include more community asset transfer, as well as continue to follow the collaborative approach which has enabled the council and community organisations to deliver vital services.

 I fully support this approach and have seen first-hand just how well it can work here in Bristol South.  

This isn’t about the ‘nice to have’ extras in life, but ensuring that people have the basics – from food to social interaction, learning support and financial management. 

As we recover from this crisis, we must create a more equal, sustainable and supportive society in which these community organisations are supported to have a leading role - turning this community spirit into community power. 

 

Karin Smyth is Labour MP for Bristol South. 

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