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Weathering the Storms – The hidden value of Community Anchor Organisations in Wales

Published: 15/04/21 | Categories: Author: Russell Todd

As one of the co-researchers on the Weathering the Storms enquiry into Community Anchor Organisations in Wales, community development specialist Russell Todd outlines their value, which is often hidden but which the COVID-19 pandemic shone a light upon.

During the COVID-19 pandemic an array of grassroots community responses have demonstrated remarkable diligence, creativity, and fortitude in providing communities with mutual aid, wellbeing opportunities, cultural activities, and more. Where they exist, Community Anchor Organisations have been an integral part of this response, something to which I could testify as the pandemic struck in the middle of the Weathering the Storms enquiry into ‘Anchors’.

The enquiry followed on from the Productive Margins: regulating for engagement research (funded by the Economic and Social Research Council) which bore witness to what happened to two long-established community organisations delivering the Communities First programme locally: The 3Gs Community Development Trust in Merthyr Tydfil; and South Riverside Community Development Centre in Riverside, Cardiff.

As well as documenting what happened to them as they lost staff and income, and tried to re-establish themselves, the research looked to the organisations themselves: what made them different to other voluntary sector organisations? What do they do? What do they see as their value?

We concluded that much of what they did and valued was beyond the gaze of formal evaluations – hence ‘hidden’ – and often at odds with the unrealistic expectations and processes set by government.  We started using the term ‘Anchor’ as they are at the centre of a social infrastructure which responds in a multiplicity of ways to emerging community concerns and ambitions.  When their existence is threatened so too is a web of productive relationships and partnerships which link individuals and small community groups to each other, and to organisations that have the potential power and resources to improve people’s living and working conditions.

ANCHORS ACROSS WALES

Our Weathering the Storms enquiry turned its gaze to a cohort of Anchors across Wales at a particular moment in time.  First, we saw an emerging interest in and development of community hubs, though there was an unhelpful confusion between ones that were community and local authority-owned and driven.

Secondly, there has been a growing appreciation of the foundational economy and the role that non-state agencies play in it.

Then there is the yawning void left by the phasing out of Communities First leaving, little by way of clear governmental policy for Welsh communities, and a similar process happening in those rural communities in the LEADER programme.

Finally, despite the ‘stormy weather’ of COVID and Brexit battering communities, new and small islands of activism can be seen that may well become the Anchors of tomorrow.  In telling the history of Anchors we heard how many had emerged, through necessity, to repair the damage of economic, social and environmental assaults.

OBSERVATIONS ON COMMUNITY ANCHORS

In addition to re-enforcing much of what Productive Margins did, we also observed the following.

  • Anchors are run for the community, by the community (as much as possible) and are accountable to the community. But ownership and accountability are not simply conjured; they require a great deal of effort to establish and maintain.
  • Anchors are values-led. Their mission shapes everything they do including strategy, income generation, governance, board composition, staffing, use of buildings, and working practices.
  • Anchors are well placed to respond to what might be needed locally and have the ability to respond swiftly, effectively and appropriately. Being local clearly helps, but it is their contextual expertise, nurtured over the years, that is at the heart of this.
  • Whilst all Anchors were concerned with unmet needs and matters of local ‘concern’ all had developed with an explicit acknowledgement of the assets embodied – potentially and actually – by local people and places. Asset based community development is a core practice.
  • Anchors are the builders and nurturers of connections and relationships, which are the bedrock – the ‘social capital’ – of local community-building and place-making
  • Some Anchors are rethinking ‘economy’ locally as they move on from stepping-in to provide that which the state or market fails to. This resonates with wider discussions on the Foundational Economy, but, we argue, Anchors are generally an overlooked component of this, and only fringe stakeholders in these discussions.
  • Not only is independence from the state a key characteristic of Anchors, but any power they have derives from it.
  • There was concern about the way in which local authorities are co-opting the term ‘community hub, which tend to be merely facilities for the co-location of services and not genuinely community-led.
  • Though most Anchors are funded from multiple sources, many are also wary of funding opportunities that divert them from their core mission and values. We heard of several examples of Anchors testing potential funding opportunities against their mission and values before proceeding.
  • Buildings, and their ownership, were often mentioned as key on a number of levels including giving Anchors a visual sense of local identity; creating safe places to be and meet; to consolidate a sense of independence. However, the pandemic has presented a challenge to find alternative spaces and activities to achieve similar ends.
  • Leadership is seen as key to a successful Anchor. However, there was caution levelled against individual ‘heroic’ leadership and an emphasis on dispersed leadership and recognising and nurturing leadership skills throughout the organisation.
  • There were mixed experiences in relationship to public sector partnerships, with one risk of partnership being the ‘colonisation’ of their ideas and approaches
  • There is a weak sense of collective identity with other Anchors in Wales, which accounts, along with a lack of resource and time, for why this distinct cohort currently lack a strong collective national voice.

SUPPORTING ANCHORS

Our Weathering the Storms paper is published at a critical time. As well as Senedd and local elections in the next 15 months, there is also much talk about exploring new post-pandemic social, economic and ecological possibilities. To this end, we argue there is a need to grow the number and strength of Anchors in Wales (in those communities who feel they would benefit from one and certainly not imposed on them), but that this happens hand-in-hand with a greater analysis and understanding of their contribution – current and potential – to civil society and foundational economic thinking.

It is an analysis that is further developed in Scotland where we were struck by the inability of the Scottish Community Alliance to find any ‘example of sustained community empowerment without some such locally embedded [anchor] organisation’.

Considering that not so long-ago Empowerment was one of Welsh Government’s Three E’s (with Early Years and Employability) required to build more resilient Welsh communities, it is a powerful statement and one which we think demands further scrutiny and application in a Welsh context as we re-build our communities when the recent Storms subside.

You can read the full Weathering the Storms paper here.

Photo credit:

The People’s Palace: after Magritte.

Glenn Davidson and Chris Coppock, 2018