Our latest guest blog welcomes Graham Duxbury, national CEO of Groundwork, who discusses the importance of community action and introduces their latest report - Communities Taking Action - which has surveyed community groups to better understand what motivates people to get involved in action in their communities, the benefits that are realised as a result of community action and what support and resources are needed to help this to happen.
From the Civil Society Strategy to the 'Year of Green Action', empowering communities has been high up the government agenda recently. At Groundwork we think this is a good thing: supporting communities to find their own solutions to social and environmental issues has been at the core of our work since the very first Groundwork Trust set up in St Helens in 1981.
But we also know that it can be much harder for community action to take root and be sustained in some places compared to others. While in all local areas there are people with pride and passion who want to make a difference, the pressures of life, the stability of community structures and the help and support available can differ markedly. In all the rhetoric about community empowerment there's very little discussion about the conditions that are needed for it to thrive.
To address this we wanted to find a way of helping people on the front line to tell their own story - what type of 'social infrastructure' do they need to do what they do?
Just under 400 community groups responded to our survey and we carried out a series of in-depth interviews to get under the skin of the themes that were emerging. About one in ten of the community groups that responded were park Friends of groups and many others used parks and green spaces as venues for their activities.
One of the key themes that came through in the responses was the tremendous value that grassroots volunteer-led groups can bring to community life. Many are focused on delivering much needed services - from sports sessions to conservation - but these bring with them many more intangible benefits: a greater sense of belonging, improved mental wellbeing, opportunities to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise, and a platform for getting more involved in local decision-making.
A third of respondents were motivated by improving the local environment and 20% specifically by wanting to protect a space or service that is under threat. The importance of this will come as no surprise to Fields in Trust, who have long understood the importance of protecting green spaces cherished by local residents.
Fields in Trust is supporting the Best Community Sport Project category at the Groundwork Community Awards on Thursday 21st November. You can vote for your favourite of all the nominated projects for the People's Choice Award.
The diversity of responses to the survey demonstrates what we have always known - that the UK has a rich tapestry of community organisations working to deliver a wide range of social, economic and environmental benefits. Many local authorities rely on this informal infrastructure as they seek to maintain the quality of community life. Some - food banks and health support groups - provide a basic safety net for our physical and emotional needs, while others - from community libraries to local history societies - nurture social connections and add richness and colour to our lives. But are we at risk of taking it all for granted?
Although 89% of people said they thought community action was more important compared to five years ago, almost half said that it had become more difficult over the same period. Some of the reasons for this related to the impact of austerity on local services, which many people said had increased need in their communities while reducing support for their work. Others spoke about increasing competition for grants, a decrease in the amount of time people had to volunteer and the complexities of 'red tape'.
"There's a difference between communities taking control and being empowered and being able to sort of, you know, control their own destiny... but also of statutory services not bowing out and expecting the charity sector to do it... without any funding and resources to go alongside that".
The obvious question, then, is how do we provide an effective support structure for grassroots community action to thrive? Unsurprisingly, better access to funding is at the top of most groups' shopping list - not just grants but support to develop long-term plans for revenue funding. There were, however, many other things that community groups said they would value, including help to engage with under-represented groups in their area and with local businesses, support with volunteer recruitment and retention, and new ideas for spreading the word about what they do, in particular using digital platforms.
Our experience of managing programmes of grant funding and support for community groups demonstrates there is a clear appetite for information and advice. Some of this can be satisfied by better online resources and by sharing ideas and good practice. Work to develop the MyCommunity website to better meet the needs of groups managing parks and green spaces is underway. However, in many cases there is no substitute for face-to-face help from a trusted adviser and Groundwork continues to campaign for investment in a programme of local 'enabling' for community groups.
As we try and mend the fault lines in society caused by divisive political discourse and as we seek to mobilise millions of people to take action on climate change, community action in parks and open spaces can be a powerful place to start. It's therefore vital that we do what we can to protect and grow this web of community activity. This means local authorities thinking creatively about how to build capacity, provide access to facilities and expertise and use levers such as procurement to invest in the social as well as the physical fabric of our communities. It also means central government coming good on the promises set out in its Communities Framework and passing an Environment Bill which has support for public engagement and community action on the environment at its heart.
There are many reasons to be optimistic. Our survey highlights the commitment and creativity at work in neighbourhoods across the country. However, it also shows that those giving their time to help others in their local area are feeling the strain. We need to celebrate but also support our community leaders. Fields in Trust plays a vital role in protecting community green spaces and supporting the groups that use them. We're hoping that this report will act as a springboard towards greater empowerment for community groups of all types in every neighbourhood.
You can read the full report on the Groundwork website.
Favourite childhood park: Bold Venture Park, Darwen - scene of many formative moments and gateway to exploring the wild moors beyond
Favourite local park: Abbey Fields, Kenilworth - history, nature and play in one compact package
Favourite overseas park: Golden Gate Park, San Francisco - flower power in all its manifestations
Favourite park memory: Wide games with the cubs - adventure, exploration and chips on the way home
Favourite thing to do at the park: Sending the children off on a long run while I plug back into nature
Graham Duxbury is Chief Executive of Groundwork.
Graham Duxbury was appointed Groundwork's national Chief Executive in March 2014. He has nearly 20 years' experience of helping public and voluntary sector organisations reach new audiences and deliver strategic communications and development campaigns. He was previously Groundwork's Director of Development - responsible for building national relationships and partnerships, generating income, developing national programmes and leading on policy and strategic communications. Graham joined Groundwork UK in 1998, prior to which he undertook a number of communications roles in the voluntary, public and private sectors.