The Relationships Project was established to answer the question: how do we build a better society by building better relationships? When lockdown began we opened our ‘Observatory’ to gather examples, insights and intelligence on how communities were responding to these unprecedented circumstances, which we reported in The Moment We Noticed.
We heard of people’s pain, loss, frustrations and fears. At the same time we have seen new relationships flower and flourish and 10 million more citizens spend time every week helping their neighbours.
Few consider themselves ‘volunteers’ in any formal sense and most were not mobilised by any organisation. Instead, millions of people have made their own social and moral choices to help each other at a time of crisis. This has overwhelmingly been at the hyper-local level, not even neighbourhoods, but typically a couple of surrounding streets.
This has been powerful and essential activity. Without this community action the social impact of the pandemic would be harder still.
Our next question has been how can we sustain this activity and build on the new relationships that have been forged? COVID-19 is not the only crisis in our communities.
Local government has an important but nuanced role in this. Trying to catch and preserve the spirit of those 10 million citizens in structures, systems and policies will surely kill it. Indeed, it won’t be obvious to many people that their council should have anything to do with the help they are offering on their street.
However, councils can play a powerful connecting role, enriching the web of relationships within their communities.
Councils can shape all their services as situations for making new connections. For example councils could think of services like libraries, parks, community centres primarily as places of relationship building. We might stop assessing their quality by the number of books issued, the income generated, or reductions in anti-social behaviour cases, but by the number of groups using them, the new initiatives started, how full they are round the clock.
If, in a day, a library hosts a video games club, a community film night, provides quiet space for study and a chair aerobics class for older people, does it matter if no-one borrows a book?
We can re-skill our librarians, caretakers and parks staff as professional community connectors as they fill the shelves, open the halls and cut the grass.
Councils can also build on the things that motivated people to act differently during lockdown. This is a crisis that is highly visible, its impact hyper-local and people have seen how their neighbourly actions are part of a national effort. These features aren’t only relevant to global pandemics.
Councils can choose to share with the community more of the problems that are visible to them, as a spur to action: isolated older people nearby, children in overcrowded homes, environmental crime, difficult to manage spaces. Councils can do this on the hyper-local, street-by-street level that is an essential part of the COVID activism.
People also underestimate the impact of their neighbourly efforts and councils opening up the big picture may be a further motivating factor. People wouldn’t know that simple acts to reduce isolation among the older people in their area means fewer hospital admissions, less need for social care and more money and resources for other public goods.
This is not about trying to make people quasi-social workers, but to show that the everyday contact they have with their friends and neighbours makes a powerful societal as well as an individual difference.
Finally, councils can work differently and better with the voluntary and community sector. In doing this work, we have heard of relationships between councils and the voluntary sector transformed. Previously insurmountable barriers to working better together seem to have melted away: new ways of managing data security, different approaches to Disclosure and Barring Service checks. New levels of trust have been forged, with councils devolving funding to the voluntary and community sector to spend where they saw the need.
Councils have resisted the impulse to organise and institutionalise activity, instead supporting and enhancing the ‘messy’ activity that was already going on. There are few good reasons to reverse this new behaviour.
It would be wrong to think of this as a purely public policy question. How we sustain the relationships and activity of recent months is not a question we can expect Government, local or central, to simply answer. It is for business, charities, communities and citizens as well. Councils are a key part of that eco-system and can foster the relationships that are at the heart of resilient and mutually supporting communities.
Tony Clements is an associate of the Relationships Project and strategic director of economy at Hammersmith and Fulham LBC. He writes in a personal capacity