News and Comment

One village’s experience of unlocking capacity, six months on

Tuesday 9 October 2012


Earlier this year, OPM was involved in leading the Local Government Association’s Ageing Well programme. This was an intensive programme of support for councils, funded by the Department for Work and Pensions, and designed to help councils develop good places to grow older. At the heart of it all was an ‘asset-based approach’ – a focus on the resources that communities already had – and the ambition that older people themselves should be in the driving seat.

In one local authority area we ran three workshop events with older people in a coastal village. It was a community of low income households with little local employment, and our early conversations highlighted a common view that in recent years the area had ‘gone downhill’. These older residents had memories of a tidy, neighbourly community with a friendly local pub, but there wasa sense of resignation that those days had gone. Symbolic of that was the pub itself – once cherished and well-used, it seemed to have become a focus for trouble.

The mood shifted over the course of the first two workshops, (which were advertised as drop-in coffee mornings so as not to put people off). People started discussing what they could start doing as a community, rather than what had stopped. There was talk of organising an Olympic Breakfast event to coincide with the torch passing through the village, and a newcomer with experience as a mechanic offered to give people car maintenance lessons. There were positive expressions on people’s faces as they drew maps of their village and reminded themselves how many assets they had: a school, a community hall, allotments and more. One woman, who had said little throughout, at one point told the group she would like to start a cinema club.

At the third workshop, which brought together residents from this and another neighbourhood, it was encouraging to see our villagers arriving and talking together. They looked like a community of neighbours in a way they hadn’t a month earlier. They were confident in their conversations with council officers and councillors. Already starting to make new use of those local assets, they even arrived using community transport – something they hadn’t even known existed a few weeks before.

The next chapter

So what has happened since? This week, several months on from those three workshops, I spoke to one of the council officers who had been involved. Some ideas, predictably, have come to nothing, and some people have remained unengaged. Residents came out to see the Olympic torch relay as expected, but few took up the invitation to go back to the village school to socialise afterwards. Our workshops had not radically brought the village to life overnight.

But that process of unlocking capacity began with our coffee morning conversations has continued, and green shoots have started to appear in the months since. One of our workshop participants has set up a weekly shopping trip into town for villagers, using local community transport, which goes some way to overcoming the limitations of the regular bus service. She has also started a knit and natter group which meets regularly in the hall. Another of our attendees has become the village’s representative on the area’s Big Local committee, which has access to National Lottery support to build community capacity locally. She has also signed up as an environmental volunteer who promotes responsible dog walking (i.e. cleaning up after your pet) by carrying disposal bags to dole out to others. Her husband, meanwhile, has joined the committee that oversees the community hall.

All three of these individuals had come along to our workshops feeling frustrated with the state of their village, and all are now playing practical, positive roles to improve it. What does the neighbourhood officer think has motivated them?

‘I think those first sessions broke the ice for them. For some people that’s the hard part – just breaking into the group, feeling you can be one of the people who does things, rather than waiting to be asked. These are now people who come forward and say ‘I’ll do that,’  where as before we had those sessions, they didn’t.’

That the neighbourhood officer is still there is important to note – he helps to plug the residents into organisations and funding pots that can help, and steer their ideas in the right direction. It is residents, however, in the driving seat.

And what of the pub they were so ashamed of? To the relief of many villagers, it has been closed by the police and its licence revoked. What will happen to the building isn’t clear, but with community-owned pubs springing up all over the country, perhaps that’s a project that can really get the community excited.