Community building in Gloucester: a necessity of austerity or the right approach for residents?

Gloucester City Council in south-west England is one of the UK city authorities that have, since 2009, been worst hit by central government spending cuts. With its total government funding being reduced by 23.4 percent between 2009 and 2018, Gloucester has had to rethink its public service delivery − just like many other authorities across the UK.

According to a new report by Oxford University’s Government Outcomes Lab, “in some instances, this [situation] led to communities taking on direct responsibility for services, assuming responsibility for tasks that would otherwise be considered the job of the local authority.”

There’s a two-fold argument for this. Firstly, the idea is that people live more fulfilling lives when they have the power to shape their own outcomes and change things that matter to them. For communities to thrive, they need to be given the tools and resources to find solutions that work for them and for the places where they live. But there is also a financial argument. In this climate of austerity, and with the rise of complex problems such as social isolation and ageing, the state can no longer afford to be responsible for all aspects of public service delivery.

While some citizens may appreciate this new relationship with the state, it is important to understand how citizens should be involved, what responsibilities they should be asked to assume, and how to uphold the quality and accountability of public services.

We recently visited Gloucester to learn how they have adapted to the changing times using an approach they call community building: active investment in sustainable communities that can help themselves. We spoke to local councillors, government employees, service deliverers, and residents to find out about the rationale behind community building and what potential it holds for the future of government.

Jennie Watkins’ fight for her community

As city budgets were starting to be squeezed, Jennie Watkins was a resident of the ward of Podsmead in Gloucester, which is among the most deprived areas in the UK. Following a rise in crime in the area and perceived inaction from the council, she decided to take it upon herself to lead change in her community. She became a citizen activist, and eventually campaigned to become a local councillor for the ward of Podsmead.

Jennie has been a Conservative Party councillor for nine years, and deputy leader of the council and cabinet member for communities and neighbourhoods for seven. For her, though, community building transcends the boundaries of politics and is not a party political issue at all. It’s about building stronger communities that can face the challenges posed by today’s society. And her biggest achievement has been to embed community building in Gloucester City Council’s way of working.

“When I joined the council, I would hear everyone talk about deprived areas like stains on the council map, areas that flag red,” Jennie explained.

“Now community building is starting to shift the language. We start by asking instead, ‘what does this part of the community have to offer that other areas might not have? How can we enable them to unlock their potential and take ownership for the change they want to see?’”

After two successful pilots in the areas of Podsmead and Matson, community building became an official part of the 2014 Council Plan and has been embedded in its report-writing process, with all cabinet reports containing a dedicated section on implications for community development. Today, the council employs three full-time community-builders. It has also influenced Gloucestershire County Council to embed community building in its healthcare strategy: for example, the County Council has started employing “community well-being agents” to help residents navigate the care system.

Community building in practice

The community builder’s role is to foster social cohesion and community investment in specific areas of a city − by finding out what people living there are passionate about, and connecting them with each other to create group activities that improve their well-being.

Simon, a community builder for the area of Kingsholm, says that since the start of his mandate 11 months ago, he has seen a surge in activities in the area, including yoga clubs and community gardening, as well as the opening up of a retirement village to residents nearby.

“It’s about encouraging and enabling residents to be involved in and start activities with their neighbours that matter to them,” he explains.

“My role is only to act as a trigger or initiator. The activities are owned by the residents. I am just there to connect the right people at the right time and offer them support when they encounter barriers.”

Where there is sufficient demand, the city council has taken services that were previously outsourced to private companies and delegated them to the communities themselves. For example, since 2018 the Podsmead ward has taken over responsibility for grass-cutting and landscape maintenance. Following dissatisfaction with the previous private contractor, a group of eight young people now organise themselves to deliver the same service and get paid directly by the council − and the results have been impressive.

“It works better because people who do it actually care about it, and as a consequence everyone respects the environment,” said Jordan, the 17-year-old in charge of coordinating the work within the group. Besides creating local jobs, Jordan told us that this initiative has actively improved the local area, leading to greater social cohesion and a decrease in antisocial behaviour by young people.

But what does it look like to embed community building in traditional public services that are often reactive and crisis-driven? We spoke to Gloucestershire Constabulary to find out.

Embedding community building in the police force

Gloucestershire Constabulary delivers policing to six areas in the county of Gloucestershire, of which Gloucester is one. In all, it serves a population of over 600,000.

From 2013, neighbourhood officers in the Constabulary became involved in various activities related to asset-based community development (ABCD) and strength-based problem solving training with Barnwood Trust, a charitable foundation rooted in Gloucestershire and Blue Light, a police training provider.

“This came at a time when we felt that neighbourhood policing was being eroded; staff were being abstracted to support response colleagues as demand for the service continued to rise,” said Damon Blandford, police liaison and development officer for the office of the police and crime commissioner in Gloucestershire.

“We could see relationships with communities starting to break down and with it trust in the police; we wanted the police to very purposefully build relationships and work with people in the community.”

A number of police community support officers (PCSOs) – a type of neighbourhood police – worked closely with the Barnwood Trust and Blue Light, taking off their uniforms and spending time building meaningful relationships with people in their assigned areas.

“In many ways, the role of a community builder involves going back to our nature of building relationships and making connections to help others, something that has been stripped away from public services,” said Louise, one of the PCSOs. “A lot of this is ‘silent work’ and, while it is hard to capture in numbers, it opens up a myriad of possibilities for local communities and it makes them the owners of their own destiny.”

One example from the community building work of the Constabulary is the creation of Hope, a café in the ethnically diverse area of Tredworth in Gloucester that Louise played a key role in setting up. She engaged with local residents to learn about their needs and connected residents to the local church to secure a place for the cafe. The cafe is now an established meeting place in the community, welcoming a diverse range of residents, decreasing social isolation and helping people get to know their neighbours – ultimately helping them feel safer in their local area.

Another example is that of Echoes#2, a youth club in Coney Hill, one of the most deprived areas in Gloucester and the country. Echoes#2 shows how working in an asset-based way can bring about meaningful change. Anti-social behaviour in Coney Hill decreased by almost 30% after the creation of the club. Despite being set up with the help of the police, today the youth club is run entirely by the community for the community.

Louise, Chris, Claire and their colleagues told us that their experience as community-builders has substantially changed the way they see their profession and people’s perception of the police. “Previously, as PCSOs, it was normal to only see the ‘bad stuff’ and react to crises as they came,” Chris said. “After this experience, I started looking at the areas within my remit in a different way, by seeing their strengths. People now want us to be with them in the good times, too.”

Although the two year secondment has ended, Gloucestershire Constabulary is planning for it to have a lasting impact on the police force. Now back with the Constabulary, Louise, Hayden and Marcus are bringing cultural change to the constabulary from within, through a change of mindset, leading by example and helping to proliferate community building practice by sharing their learning with colleagues.

Why this new approach is getting results

So how do we know whether community building has been successful? Jennie says that measuring the results is far from straightforward, and they are often intangible in the short term. But she holds that, since the council started engaging in community building, the relationship with residents has changed for the better.

“People trust us a lot more now,” she explains. “They were sick of not being consulted, sick of having projects done to them that weren’t meaningful, that weren’t what they wanted. They didn’t engage with things, they didn’t trust them or understand them, because no one had taken the time to build a relationship with them. Now they engage a lot more and take initiatives that benefit their well-being and that of the communities around them. They stopped seeing us as mere deliverers of services but rather as co-producers.”

We ask Jennie how hard it has been to get there. “It’s been a long journey for us. Embedding a new way of working like community building is difficult and takes time, especially considering the frequency of electoral cycles and the huge cuts to non-statutory work of the last decade,” she explains.

“Ultimately, it requires a culture shift, and unless people buy into a long-term vision that transcends short-term outcomes, it will not take root. As a leader, you have to find a concept for your civil service to rally around and make it the golden thread of everything you do.”

For Jennie, two other key factors in the success of the community building efforts in Gloucester were strong partnerships across all societal sectors and readiness to fail and experiment as you go. “If you are really committed to community building, then you need to be ready to observe different outcomes in different places and embrace the uncertainty that comes from that. Sometimes you just cannot define the outputs you will get upfront, and so you need to go out on a limb and experiment.”

What’s next for Gloucester?

The city council plans to extend this new approach by formally joining forces with Barnwood Trust and other organisations to start a community building partnership that will increase access to resources for training and project funding.

Jennie told us that she will soon step down as a councillor to leave space for someone new. “I’m going to test my theory that if you enable people and you really do devolve power and responsibility to them, even if you take away the person away that helped make that change happen, it will not fall apart. This is because community building will hopefully be so ingrained in the culture of this authority that if someone tries to change it, not only they will be get backlash from the communities − because it’s how they now expect to be working with us − but also the officers will automatically see it through. We’ll see if I’m right or wrong.”

The initiatives in Gloucester have raised a number of questions about how local authorities can best deal with budget cutbacks. Will the council’s approach be vindicated, and will the city’s residents really stand to benefit from community building? We look forward to returning to Gloucester in the future to see for ourselves.

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Our investigation into community building in Gloucester is part of what we have been exploring at the Centre for Public Impact as part of our enablement research. Watch this space for more about our travels throughout the UK to discover cases of government experimenting with this approach. We would love to hear from you if you work in the public sector and have a story to share about how you are empowering and collaborating for a more people-centred government.