Joining the Dots To Create A Stronger Community

| Maria Passingham

Imagine a farmer on one side of a river, and a market trader on the other. They can see each other, they can hear the gist of what the other is saying, they know they want to work together but the expanse of water between them stops them actually pulling off that idea. The farmer has a boat and takes over some of his veg, but by the time he gets to the other side some of it has been lost to the waves, and anyway the market trader wanted potatoes, not tomatoes.  

In Stockport, the council and its partners saw this happening across the borough. Not with farmers and market traders but with public services, not for profit groups, and community activists. Everyone wanted to do good and work together but frequently the far-away voices and choppy waves of bureaucracy and fear of doing the wrong thing stopped them proceeding. 

By crossing the river, and listening and engaging with those people active in the community, the council learned that the Heatons has an “overwhelming energy from local people who are willing to work together but often they lack clarity about how they can have a role, what else is out there and how they can connect”, ultimately delaying or even stopping them from collaborating altogether.

The initial ambition was to explore the possibility of growing a network to support the community and enable collaboration across the sectors. This included community leaders of local sports, arts, and faith groups, businesses, councillors, GPs, schools and other local active people. The shared goal was part of the council’s long-term Growth and Reform Strategy, which commits to creating more resilient communities where people support each other, often avoiding the need for professional contact and intervention, leading to more timely, appropriate and ultimately reduced use of public services.

But it became clear that while everyone had good intentions backed by enthusiasm and energy, cumbersome processes, complex needs (where the wrong service could cause harm), and a lack of time and space acted as barriers to them communicating and working together effectively. 

Let’s return briefly to our farmer and trader on the banks of the river, and imagine that the land-owner (who is inundated by requests from tenants) decides to build a bridge between the two, and supply a driver to carry goods back and forth. This third party connects the two established community resources and develops a relationship to both, growing trust and loyalty while easing the pressure on the land-owner.

In essence, Stockport Council and its partners built this bridge and hired the driver – in the form of colleagues from the public and voluntary sectors, and commissioned services – that connects the community with public services, and crucially, to other community activists too. This Team Around The Place avoids duplication, and inconsistent or mis-communication, and builds on the existing resources, which are known and trusted by the community. They can easily connect and support community organisations and support relationships and trust between community and services.  Thus reducing the demand on public services where community or voluntary responses may be more appropriate or even more effective.  Where it is appropriate to have service involvement The Team Around The Place supports collaborative solutions to individuals or community needs, drawing on the various assets in the place from all sectors, which in turn brings a much richer offer that recognises the reality of peoples’ lives.

In an effort to democratise the process of collaboration the council engaged with a variety of stakeholders, and held a workshop which was planned and delivered to allow all participants to be in the space as equals. Instead of a project being led by Services, it was now a joint effort by all involved, and fundamentally shifted the sense of ownership as well as anchoring the project across a number of services and organisations, making it much more self-sustaining than if it were orchestrated from a distance. 

Soon community hubs were developed across the Heatons, providing a place where people can now find out about local community activities, and creating a replicable model for future hubs, and a volunteer match event has led to local people with a will to be involved to be linked to groups who are desperate for support. Multiple drop-in groups, workshops, and training sessions have been run around mental wellbeing, dementia, and social isolation; already likely reducing demand on local services and preventing future demand by enabling people to live happier, more fulfilling lives. The relationships have been built across the sectors making meaning co-design of services and businesses is happening naturally bringing a much richer offer.

The approach has sustainability at its heart because it’s not relying on additional resources to keep going but works with the assets in the place, joining the dots to create a whole that is far more than the sum of its parts.  To maintain momentum and connect local services and activity further there is a strong commitment to bring all the public sector workforce together (through induction and development) and develop a digital directory to identify and support local services. The directory will also support access to funding opportunities to develop ideas through the Stockport Local Fund.

While still monitoring and learning from the work in progress, over the course of the past three years the council and the Team Around The Place have demonstrated a solid commitment to their aspirations to nurture strong resilient communities that work in harmony with joined up local services. They have established a way of working that is now beginning to be extended to the whole of Stockport and provides an example to Greater Manchester as a whole. 

Photo by Jonathan Klok

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