You might have heard us referring to Halifax Opportunities Trust as a Community Anchor in some of the reports and articles we’ve shared recently. And, if you don’t work with the Trust or within the sector, it might not be clear exactly what we mean by this. So, we’ve caught up with our CEO, Alison Haskins, to explain what a Community Anchor is and why they are so important for the first in a long series of HOT Topic articles.
Civil society is a vital component of the UK. It is the manifestation of people coming together around common interests of place, belief or topic and often leads to the creation of informal or constituted community, faith and social action groups. Civil society compliments the business and public sectors and is, I believe, one of the really positive aspects of our country and one which is often forgotten about when we try to define ‘Britishness’.
In countries with a weak or oppressed civil society, people are unable to gather together for social action purposes. They cannot lobby or campaign. The state or private enterprise is the substitute and provides a poor imitation of what true citizen-led collective action is all about.
What are community anchors?
The term ‘civil society’ covers a huge range of activity and organisations from trade unions to faith groups to charities to peer-led support groups. For many years I’ve been really interested in a very specific ‘sub-set’ of civil society organisation, which sits within the charitable sphere.
These organisations are often called ‘community anchors’. They are based in local residential neighbourhoods which have distinct identities (might be a housing estate, a village or a council ward). Community anchors are initiated and developed by the community and reflect this in terms of governance, staffing and volunteers. They are multi-purpose, providing a range of activities, services and facilities in the local community. They are usually multi-generational and open to everyone living in the area.
Many operate from more than one building and are fairly entrepreneurial – always open to new ideas and developing new projects that add value to the place they are based. Some have started to buy or build houses, for instance, to address the housing shortage. Others have taken on neglected buildings and now run them as community centres, enterprise centres or arts/sports centres. They are key regeneration catalysts, both for ‘soft’ issues such as improving health, employment and learning and also ‘hard’ development of neglected buildings or new build.
The key is that they are an integral part of the place where they are based and are accountable to the local community. They do not have ambitions to grow far beyond their core community and are in their neighbourhoods for the long haul and through good and bad times. Covid was a perfect example of this when many anchors struggled with loss of funding and protecting their staff and volunteers but still set up support groups in a matter of days. They were able to tap into long-standing networks and relationships and coordinate what was immediately needed in their local area. In this way they are the crucial ‘place-makers’ in civil society.
Over the past 10 or so years, ‘place-making’ has become the mantra for many local councils. Originally it was a concept related to physical public spaces. Now it has widened to mean the creation of an environment (including an ideological environment) that capitalises on the assets and potential within a local community, and results in places that positively contribute to people’s health, happiness, and well-being. During the same time – and not necessarily correlated – there has been a reduction in the direct delivery of services by councils, and an increase in the outsourcing of service delivery to private and voluntary sector organisations.
‘Farming the poor’
The trials and tribulations of this change have been well-documented. Some providers have over-extended themselves and collapsed. Other providers have lost the commitment to quality (for all sorts of reasons) and lost contracts. In some cases, the relationship between commissioner and provider is highly transactional and loses sight of the wood for the trees within an outputs-based contract management approach.
This can have an incredibly detrimental effect. Here is Conservative MP Richard Bacon speaking prophetically about outsourcing on BBC Radio 4 on the 20th Feb 2015:
“One of the problems that we’ve had in recent years is there have grown up enormous service provider companies such as G4S, Serco and various others who have become good at bidding for contracts which is a separate skill from implementing them and delivering the work and hiring the people you need to perform the contract should you win it.
“So I’m afraid that too often the government is seduced by the rhetoric of big companies with big balance sheets who can afford to take a loss, certainly for a year or two … and then things don’t always work out as smoothly as they should and the savings don’t always materialise.
“So, I don’t think it is the case that we should always be going for the big contractors on the assumption that that will save money. Very often the local knowledge that local suppliers offer is much more valuable and much more value for money in many cases”.
The approach described by Richard Bacon is sometimes described pithily as ‘farming the poor’, where organisations seeking to grow into new markets (for profit or scale reasons) see communities as commodities to be used (i.e. ‘farmed’) for their growth ambitions, with none of the financial benefits being realised in those neighbourhoods (either on an individual basis through – for instance – direct employment opportunities or collective retention of revenue and surplus via a locally-governed community anchor).
The value of local community anchors
For all the problematic aspects of commissioning-out services, there have also been some real successes. This has particularly been the case where services have been commissioned to community anchors with an absolute passion and a focus on people and place.
It is very difficult for one organisation to deliver a vast range of different types of activity; maintaining expertise and innovation across everything from swimming pools to crematoriums has its challenges. Sometimes, when one of those services is taken over by an organisation focussed very specifically on a neighbourhood and a range of services in which it has a specialism, quality goes up, costs go down and innovation begins to kick in.
This is particularly apparent when local community anchors take over buildings or activities. These organisations are constitutionally and emotionally committed to the local place, which means they are locally governed and understand the people who live and work in the area. In fact, they usually are the people who live and work in the area.
They don’t parachute into a new place to hoover up a contract; and if they lose a contract they stay committed to the place. They don’t need to start from scratch to build networks and relationships – these already exist. They do not sit like an oil slick on the surface of a community – they are part of the water itself! They understand the grain of the community and reflect its demographics and its history.
They tend not to over-extend themselves (and if they do, they tend to lose community understanding and focus) and they definitely don’t take over contracts with the aim of maximising profits for the benefit of their owners or shareholders. Any profit is reinvested back into the activities they are running for the benefit of the local place. This is real social value, in addition to the oft-cited output approach to added value (such as number of local jobs; volunteer opportunities; apprenticeships, which any organisation can provide).
So, it’s vital that we understand and recognise the particular value that local community anchors and associational life bring to a place. A strong and socially active society is an inherently good thing and it is crucial to create an environment where civil society, including community anchors, flourishes.
This blog is the first of a series of ‘HOT Topic’ articles, where we will speak to HOT employees to discuss some of the prevalent topics in our sector, our community and our borough. Keep checking our news page for more updates.
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