How can we build ‘strong communities’?

May 25, 2021   By Steve Skinner

Steve Skinner explores the features of strong communities and how local authorities can support them – from the grassroots up.

The demanding experience of the Covid pandemic over the last year has prompted many local authorities to consider how ‘strong’ their communities are – what factors seem to help them cope better in a crisis? 

How is it that some neighbourhoods seem to pull together and provide local support, while others struggle to respond?

The term ‘strong’ communities has been used in policy and practice for many years – though rarely defined! What are some of the key characteristics of a ‘strong’ community and how might local authorities support and help build these?

Connected, organized and participative

Certainly, neighbourhoods being well connected during the covid crisis has come out strongly as a key feature of areas that are coping better.

My experience in supporting resident-led partnerships in Leeds and Salford, for example, showed me how crucial local links for food distribution has been, both between community groups and with isolated, often vulnerable residents. 

A second key feature seems to be about the level of community organisation – more organised communities, where community groups are well-established, informed and confident, seemed to have coped better, continuing to provide local support and keep activities going despite the restrictions, often through creative approaches to on-line engagement. 

Areas also seem to vary a lot concerning levels of participation; a participative area can be described as where people and groups contribute to decisions that affect their lives and have a real say about the issues that concern them.  A high level of participation can make a real difference to how people feel about their area. 

So strong communities, could be described, for example, as being better connected, better organized and more participative.

Seven features of strong communities

Through describing such a set of such features, are we getting nearer to capturing the essence of what a strong community might look like? 

After years of informal consultation with communities and councils, I suggested recently that strong communities could consist the seven key features:

  • Connected
  • Organised
  • Participative
  • Active
  • Resourceful
  • Accepting
  • Fair

It seems likely that different neighbourhoods display different combinations of these seven features and, over time, at differing levels.

For example, over the years of harsh austerity, some areas lost community groups who suffered from a lack of even basic funding, while being faced with high demands for their support and services.

How can local authorities support strong communities?

So, if such features indicate the strength of a community, how can we as local authorities support the growth of such features? 

One framework to use has four key elements:

  • Building people – training, mentoring and support to strengthen the skills, confidence and abilities of active residents and community leaders
  • Developing local organisations – so that community and voluntary groups are better organised and more successful in achieving their aims
  • Increasing participation – so that communities have real influence over local decision-making and can work jointly with public services
  • Strengthening equality – where issues of exclusion and discrimination in services and local community resources are addressed.

This approach aims to give people the tools to make change happen on their terms and the environment to help make it happen.  

A key value is about enabling and cultivating change from the grassroots up, while ensuring the involvement of marginalised and excluded groups. 

When I worked for Bradford Council, we developed a strategy of building stronger communities, involving a broad spread of community organisations, from religious groups to a darts team.

Through a series of conferences and workshops, they all got involved in jointly deciding what was needed; such community initiatives have helped to build the reputation of Bradford as a lively city.

Many public services, such as the NHS, also took a fresh look at how they engaged communities and got involved in new schemes to consult and work with local groups. 

Steve Skinner is the author of Building Strong Communities – Guidelines on Empowering the Grassroots, a resource book with practical guidelines and useful tools for people working with communities.

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