The findings of a project to bring communities together to tackle inequality and isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic have been shared by Leeds Beckett University (LBU) and Locality.
The evidence has come from the Space to Connect programme – a partnership funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Co-op Foundation.
The £1.6m project was aimed at helping community organisations develop physical spaces such as buildings, allotments, and playgrounds to reduce social isolation. It ran between 2019 and 2021 and funded 57 community organisations, ranging from community trusts, youth clubs, arts centres, and city farms.
The findings give an insight into how organisations adapted to the pandemic – focusing more on creating virtual spaces, reaching out to vulnerable and isolated people, and co-ordinating support to communities.
Community organisations were the frontline in tackling community needs and social isolation during the pandemic, says Locality, offering an urgent response to basic needs and helping people access and use digital equipment to connect safely online.
But many community organisations have been left in a financially weakened position because revenue streams, such as community cafes and room hire, had reduced or disappeared completely.
The research points out that there needs to be a greater recognition of the vital role community organisations play in local communities and that the funding of organisations working with marginalised communities needs to be reviewed in order to sustain vital local networks.
Professor Mark Gamsu from LBU’s School of Health said: “VCSEs were quick to adapt, and the majority looked at how they could still support emerging local needs either through totally new activity or moving their previous work to other channels, such as online or telephone.
“The response of these groups challenged and extended the understandings of what community spaces are and how they operate.”
Tony Armstrong, CEO of Locality: “One of the biggest lessons that needs to be taken from this moment are the failings of centralisation and the potential for building a better future on the foundations of community power. We cannot control everything from the centre, Instead, we must support and trust local delivery and networks which have shown their value many times over during the crisis. We need to channel this surge of community spirit into a lasting framework of community power.”
Nick Crofts, CEO of the Co-op Foundation said: “Our Space to Connect partners strengthen community connections, tackled isolation and addressed inequality all through the unique challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. Thank you for everything you’ve achieved and learned.
“As a funder rooted in co-operative values, we’re sharing everything we’ve learned so others can benefit too. I’d recommend anyone involved in a community group reads this report to find new ways to support, strengthen and develop your communities.”
A grantee of Space to Connect explained how the pandemic has changed how they work: “Since lockdown, we’ve linked in with a lot more vulnerable people and at-risk people than we would have done previously. People who never came near our lunch or exercise [classes] and who probably needed it more than the people who did come … and I think … it’s been a blessing … we have found people who had slipped through the net.”
The report calls for the value that community organisations bring to be recognised and for them to be provided the power and resources required to fulfil their potential. This includes ensuring they are fully included in conversations around health and care strategy and provision.