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Archive for the ‘Everyday Innovators’ Category

Nurturing relationships: The test of a shared society

Monday, January 16th, 2017

How many contacts do you have stored on your phone? The head of an adolescent mental health unit once told me that his patients typically had 6 to 10 contacts listed and most of those people were likely to be professional helpers like himself. Social isolation could be both a cause and a consequence of his young patient’s ill health. It was certainly a common characteristic.

I was thinking about this when I read about the Age Concern research published last week revealing that “Half a million people over the age of 60 usually spend each day alone, with no interaction with others, and nearly half a million more commonly do not see or speak to anyone for five or six days a week”.

And whilst we are on the subject of alarming numbers an Action for Children survey of 2,000 parents in 2015 found that almost a quarter said they ‘always or often’ felt lonely.

Social isolation is not a problem for the young or for the old. It is a galloping crisis for us all

Last week we wondered on this blog whether a “shared society” is empty rhetoric or the PM’s genuine intention. If the phrase has any serious substance our collective ability to reconnect with one another, or at least to reverse the trends, must surely be the test.

The consequences may vary – loneliness, ill health, long term unemployment etc. – but the roots are the same. School performance, economic opportunities, physical and mental health, and ultimately life expectancy are all substantially influenced by the strength and depth of our social connections. Very few of us glide effortlessly through life without ever experiencing any difficulty. Our capacity for coping and bouncing back depends in part on our readiness, our acquired skills and strengths, and in part on the support around us, the networks and relationships which sustain and recharge us.

We often make the case for early action but nowhere is it more self-evidently essential. As the Early Action Task Force has noted befriending schemes are important but not sufficient. They are to loneliness what food banks are to poverty – an essential response to a crisis but not a long term solution. The early action response to isolation would involve a commitment to sustained community building throughout the life course – essentially what much of Community Links work on the ground has been all about for almost 40 years.

As we explored on this blog a few weeks ago technology has, in recent years, swept into every corner of our lives often, in the process, sweeping out friendships and relationships. We think people change lives, not transactions. Valuing and developing this element of deep value in our services here, and working to embed it more broadly across the public domain is another long standing priority for Community Links and now more urgent than ever.

The most useful work experience placements or internships are invariably shared across “warm networks” and as many as 8 out of 10 new jobs go to people known to the employer. The old cliché about it not being “what you know but who you know” is still a fair comment on the state of social mobility and, more broadly, on the distribution of opportunity in communities like ours. Building networks, and nurturing the confidence to negotiate them, is the focus of Community Links programmes like Future Links which won a Charity Times Award last October. It isn’t rocket science but it is important and it does work.

Incidental Connections showed that there is no single right way to build communities and to nurture effective and meaningful relationships but doing it better in 2017 may well be the single highest priority for organisations like ours, Jobcentres, GPs, police officers, schools, and indeed any agency in the public domain. Whether Theresa May is, or is not, seriously committed to building a shared society, we should be.

Six ways society can act earlier for mental health

Friday, November 25th, 2016

On the 9th December, the Early Action Task Force will be publishing its newest report: ‘Thriving Minds: Acting Early on Mental Health‘. Within the report we’ve focused on six areas, although we could have doubled this list as mental health runs through everything in a circle of cause and effect. Below is a snapshot of our thinking on how society can act early on mental health.

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1. Education

Half of all diagnosable mental health conditions in adults begin before the age of 14

Given the above statistic, our school years present a significant opportunity to promote positive mental health early. School can take measures to promote positive mental health, such as the whole-school approach of the Mancroft Advice Project. Local and central governments also need to ensure that their policies are focused on promoting positive mental health in children through collaboration with local services and reducing the pressure of exams.

2. Work

Mental health problems account for 47% of long term absences from work

If people felt they wouldn’t be stigmatised for having a mental health problem, they’d be much more likely to disclose this and take time off earlier to prevent their mental health from reaching crisis point. Training in Mental Health First Aid can aid understanding and reduce stigma, whilst organisational approaches such as ‘happier@work’ can make workplaces a more mentally positive place to be. Of course, some people may still fall ill and need time off work, so it’s also important that employment support services are tailored to those with mental health needs to enable them to get back into sustainable, good quality work.

3. Money

Problem debt makes a person twice as likely to develop a mental health problem

At present, a significant number of people are caught up in a vicious cycle of mental health problems and problem debt. By reducing the amount of problem debt people take on, improving early access to advice, and changing debt collection practices, we can act earlier to ensure the cycle is broken. CAB’s ‘Healthy Advice’ scheme is a good example of how services are innovating to ensure they are reaching the people who need advice as early as possible.

4. Criminal Justice

90% of prisoners have a mental health problem

The criminal justice system is host to many people at the sharp end of the collective failure to act earlier for mental health. Yet the system can play a role in creating an alternative for these people. We’ve come across excellent examples of Street Triage and Liaison & Diversion schemes which divert people away from the criminal justice system and into the care they need. Acting earlier also means making prisons mentally healthy environments, so they aren’t creating or exacerbating mental health problems for offenders who will eventually leave prison. Finally, the majority of offenders do not go to prison, so it is important that probation services are equipped to provide support in the community, as well as ensuring offenders are ready to re-enter society.

5. Housing

Renters are 75% more likely to experience serious anxiety and depression than homeowners

Insecurity in the private rented sector, as a result of a lack of affordability, short-term tenures, and poor conditions, is a significant damaging factor to private renters’ mental health. Accordingly, it is important that these issues are tackled in order to reduce the likelihood of mental illness and promote positive mental health – the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 is a promising start but more needs to be done.

6. Communities

Chronic loneliness is a comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day

Local services can play an important role in preventing loneliness and fostering social connection, ranging from highly formal services explicitly aimed at connecting people, to the more incidental connections that are created through the varied community spaces and events that we might engage with on a day to day basis for other purposes entirely. Building these connections can positively influence the way that we think about ourselves and our communities, in turn promoting better mental health, as demonstrated by Haringey Thinking Space.


It is evident that if we are to act earlier to promote positive mental health, we need to be acting before people need to engage with mental health services. In order to achieve this, it is essential that we recognise the current crisis in mental health as a social crisis, as opposed to simply a healthcare crisis. In acknowledging that mental health is everyone’s responsibility, sectors should act together to share the cost of early action, as well as the resultant benefits – the triple dividend of enabling people to lead thriving lives, whilst costing less to public services and contributing more to our economy.

If you’re interested in the ideas we’ve raised here and would like to know more, please sign up to our mailing list to ensure you receive a link to the report when it is published. You can also attend our discussion on early action for mental health, hosted by the Big Lottery Fund, on Friday 9th December from 9.30am-12pm. For further information and to register for a free ticket, please visit our Eventbrite page.

‘A country that works for everyone’ requires investment in our social infrastructure

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

The government’s new mantra, ‘a country that works for everyone’, was the central theme of the Chancellor’s speech at the Conservative party conference yesterday. However, whilst his analysis of why we voted for Brexit – “large parts of our country feel left behind” – and the uncertainty it evokes was convincing, his answers to these problems were less so.

In contrast to many other commentators, I was left with a feeling of déjà vu after watching his speech. True, he seems less keen on blindly pursuing austerity than his predecessor and perhaps more amenable to increasing investment, but the apparent focus of this potential investment drive remains similar to George Osborne’s; Hammond signalled that it would largely comprise of “targeted public investment in high value [physical] infrastructure”. However, as we argued following the previous Chancellor’s Spending Review last year, it would be a wasted opportunity to invest in physical infrastructure alone.

A missed opportunity

If this government truly wants to deliver “an economy that works for everyone… not just for today, but for future generations too” then we must also increase investment in our country’s social infrastructure. This can be anything from enabling children to be ready for school, to ensuring that people who leave prison are provided with jobs, friends and houses to prevent them from re-offending. Alongside important physical and economic infrastructures this is what will yield the greatest amount of prosperity, as argued by many contributors to our A Question of Growth blog series earlier this year (a summary of which you can read here. In the language of the Early Action Task Force: investing wisely and early in social wellbeing yields a triple dividend: thriving lives, costing less, and contributing more.

To date previous governments have consistently failed to deliver on this front, but with the delayed time-frame for implementing austerity we now have the perfect opportunity to ensure that this government does not follow the same path.

Investing in society

It is clear that the Chancellor has already decided he wants to invest more, so now the fundamental question is in what? In his speech he rightly celebrated the potential for a long term vision enabled by the creation of the National Infrastructure Commission, the remit of which is to “prioritise and plan… test value for money… [and] ensure that every penny spent on infrastructure is properly targeted to deliver maximum benefit”. It is just a shame that this is narrowly focused on physical infrastructure alone.

It would be a bold yet sensible to widen its remit or set up a whole new commission on early action investment: identifying those areas where investment in our nation’s social infrastructure could yield the greatest returns and then ensuring that money is available to enable individuals and communities to reach their potential. This is the only way that the new government can deliver a “strong, prosperous economy” that “works for everyone”, addressing those all-important ‘burning injustices’ identified by the Prime Minister in her inaugural speech.

Summer in the city

Friday, August 26th, 2016

Five young people are walking slowly in front of me.  The youngest might be 10 or 11. The oldest maybe 14.  At each parked car, and there are many, they try the door handles without breaking step. Catching sight of me they pause silently at the corner shop and wait for me to pass. They don’t go in.  There is no hurry. They have nothing to do.

These kids aren’t on a mission.  They are idle and bored.  For the sake of their young lives as much as for the residents of Canning Town we must hope that nothing has been left unlocked on this hot afternoon. It is easier to make an insurance claim than it is to start adult life with a criminal record.

Later I will look randomly through old annual reports. I will check my memory. 20 years ago, in 1996, we were running 80 holiday play schemes open to all and offering more than 100,000 child day places. In the summer of ‘97, 2200 young people enjoyed a Community Links camping holiday – mostly in Epping Forest but some as far away as Scotland, Wales and even climbing in the Alps. Under the inspired leadership of Kevin Jenkins, now Community Links life president, we were touching the lives of generations for more than 30 years. Other organisations were doing similar good work on a smaller scale.   None of it was rocket science but it was constructive activity, it didn’t cost much, it built relationships and it kept children out of trouble.

Today across East London there is no more than a scattering of voluntary holiday programmes, mostly offering specialist provision. The larger number of commercial care schemes may be okay for the parents who can afford them, but they are expensive and out of reach for most of the families we know. The big, open community play scheme has very largely disappeared along with the statutory grants that paid for it.

Local councils spent £1.2bn on youth work in 2010/11 but, according to the British Youth Council this had fallen to £712m by 2013/14 – a drop of almost 40%  across the UK. The top line number is bad enough but it is worse on the ground because the cuts are disproportionately focused on those embattled authorities, like Newham, which have suffered most from successive and heavy reductions in their government settlement.

This is the harsh and mindless edge of austerity.  Holiday schemes were constructive, effective, fun, cheap and life enhancing.  The alternatives for young people like those in front of me today are none of the above.

Times change and organisations must change too. Community Links  moves positively in new directions but we would like to think that when we stop doing something it is either because the job has been completed or because someone else has found a better way of doing it. I realise with a heavy heart that neither apply in this situation.

Violence begets violence: on the folly of water cannons

Monday, July 4th, 2016

Last week it was reported that London’s new Mayor, Sadiq Khan, will sell the Metropolitan Police’s unused water cannons, bought by his predecessor back in 2014. The money made from these, reportedly in the region of £200,000, will be used to fund youth services.

In the aftermath of the 2011 summer riots Sir Hugh Orde, at the time President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, was quoted saying that such a tool could fill a ‘gap in the armoury’ of police forces, prevent future riots from happening, and would save the government ‘millions of pounds’. At the time London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, echoed this idea and said that the water cannon would be effective in stopping violence by ‘nipping it in the bud’. It took three years for Johnson to finally follow through on his idea, purchasing three water cannons for £218,000. This announcement was met with criticism from human rights groups and, following the Home Secretary’s refusal to sanction their use, they have since languished in storage: unusable, undesirable and ultimately a complete waste of money.

Violence to prevent violence?

As advocates of early action, we are all for inventive ideas that improve public services, prevent social problems from occurring in the first place, and save the government money. Putting aside the important issues of the inflexibility of such devices in dealing with the type of riots we saw in 2011, the health risks, and the general ethos behind their usage, it is clear that – as with many homelessness ‘prevention’ strategies – the logic underpinning the use of water cannons is a peculiar misconception of prevention.

It’s not going to shock anyone to suggest that by the time we reach riots something has gone terribly wrong. There isn’t space in this blog post to go into the reasons why the summer riots happened in 2011 (for an overview, the London School of Economics did some excellent research on this topic), but suffice to say it was largely caused by anger at the police, social policies that harm and further disenfranchise young people (something that’s only got worse since), and poverty.

There are no easy, quick, or simple answers to these huge issues. In addressing feelings of disenfranchisement and anger at the police, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that water cannons are hardly likely to improve the situation. There are, however, inspiring practitioners working across the country who are trying to tackle some of these issues.

To take one example, we’ve been speaking to Tottenham Thinking Space (TTS) in the London Borough of Haringey as part of our growing early action case study library. TTS is a community-based therapeutic initiative that aims to improve mental health and empower the local community by providing a safe space to talk. It was set up in response to the riots and a perceived need within the local population for mental health support that was not only accessible, but would enable people to work together to help themselves and their community. Although the formal evaluation has yet to be published, early indications are that the services has been successful in improving mental health, enabling people to feel like they are contributing to – and therefore also part of – their community, and ultimately promoting positive social action.

Another example is Includem, a Scottish charity working with young people with complex needs. Its unique and intensive approach – offering 24/7 one to one support – marks them out as different to other services in the eyes of young people and gives them confidence that staff will be there over the long term to enable them to turn their lives around. In doing so it seeks to break the cycle of intergenerational social exclusion, arguably a major cause of the summer riots (even if they didn’t reach Scotland).

The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, the second best time is now

To paraphrase (and possibly butcher) a well-worn Chinese proverb: the best time to tackle disenfranchisement is twenty years ago, the second best time is now. If we manage to sell the cannons and use the money to fund youth services that have early action at their heart, undoubtedly these activities will be far more effective in preventing violence than the cannons ever could be.

If you have any suggestions as to other case studies we could include in our soon-to-be-published online case study library, please do get in touch with Rosie Hayes.

Sticking at the job

Friday, June 24th, 2016

My first proper job was as a relief worker in children’s residential care. For four months I worked in an adolescent home where I got to know one troubled 16 year old particularly well. Perhaps it was because I was just a few years older or that we had shared interests in football and boxing, whatever the reason, he talked to me as he didn’t talk to other members of staff.

One evening in my last week I told him that I was moving on. Probably ill-advisedly I promised to keep in touch, suggested we might fish together. It was late on a beautiful evening in July and we were talking at the bottom of the big garden. I can see him now, stand up, walk to the house, stop with his back to me, silhouetted against the open kitchen door and shout without turning round – “I wish I’d never met you Dave, then I’d have never had to fucking say goodbye”.

And he didn’t. For the next 4 days he refused to talk to me and when I did occasionally visit the house in later months he always left the room.

3 years later I met the family social worker on Stratford station. She told me that Patrick had taken his own life the day before his 18th birthday.

I know it wasn’t my fault – our relationship was far too fleeting for that. But if I wasn’t part of the problem for Patrick nor was I, as I had once fondly imagined, part of the solution.

I don’t think good social work necessarily involves years of engagement with the same families or the same individuals and I don’t think good community work necessarily demands an endless commitment to one community. There are times however when both do depend on strong, stretching, resilient, trusted relationships and they are not forged in the blinking of an eye.

Building organisations in this space is no different.  Steady turnover in the staff team and dependable consistency are like fast food and slow cooking, there is a place for both.

Sadly the third sector trade press and the wider media have published a relentless string of articles over the last year damming the long haul charity founder and attributing the collapse of Kids Co to something called “Founder Syndrome”. (I know, it sounds like a disease. Apparently it’s meant to)

I go part time next month after more than 35 years of working full time at Community Links – an organisation I cofounded. I have no plans for stopping entirely.  We will never know if Community Links would have been stronger or more successful without me, but at the risk of hubris I think the solid presence of our organisation in this east London community over the better part of 4 decades and the reliable relationships that have grown up around many staff colleagues and volunteers (not just me) who have worked here for sustained periods over that time is not a weakness. Sticking at the job isn’t the only way to succeed but it’s not wrong.

Smart organisations are those that understand how to continuously blend the fresh expertise, the new networks and vital insight of the latest recruit with the cherished relationships and hard won experience of existing colleagues.

Perhaps I would say that, wouldn’t I, but our Chief Executive has reached a similar conclusion from a different perspective:

Community Links” says Geraldine Blake “is unusual in many ways but not least that when our founders stepped down from managing the organisation they remained employees: David Robinson in our national research and policy unit and Kevin Jenkins in our trading development team.  A daunting prospect for a Chief Executive?  What you need to make this work is fierce focus on mission, values and impact right across the organisation, strong and regularly refreshed governance, and founders with a great sense of humility and humour.  Then you have the best of all worlds: new eyes, hard-won experience, and phenomenal intellectual assets to call on.”

One Kids Company doesn’t make a case and one Camilla doesn’t make a syndrome. One year on from its failure we are fast allowing the tribulations of an outlier to frame a sweeping, uncontested wisdom for our sector. Please stop, before we have.

Good old Bob

Monday, June 20th, 2016

Bob Holman, who died last week, wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea and I don’t think he’d mind that I said so. I think he would smile.

Our friend was a tireless critic of bunkum and conceit, of pomposity and privilege and he had the guts and the stamina to speak out over and over again, very courteously but fearlessly and relentlessly. Throughout his life Bob wrote and talked and campaigned against poverty and injustice but the many books, the numerous articles, the pithy letters to the newspapers, the lectures and presentations were only part of an extraordinary 79 years. To paraphrase Gandhi, Bob was the change that he wanted to see in the world, an active and dedicated community worker, forgoing his professorship, living and bringing up his family in the communities where he worked – Southdown in Bristol and Easterhouse in Glasgow.

Born in east London he never lost his early love for the place, writing biographies of local heroes George Lansbury and James Keir Hardie in his later years and often drawing on his childhood experience here. Bob was a friend of Community Links from our earliest days. This is an extract from a piece he published in 1990 drawing together that affection for this area, generous support for our work and above all his passion for radical change:

“I support Community Links for many reasons. First I believe Community Links is right to identify poverty as an issue to which it must give most attention…. lives characterised by material hardship and want… Britain is a prosperous nation and I cannot accept that so many of its families have so much while others have so little. The team at Community Links share this belief.”

“Second, I admire Community Links because their response is not one that patronises people with low incomes, not one which makes them feel inferior and demeaned. On the contrary, the users at Community Links have become its doers, its volunteers, its committee members, and its staff. Community Links shares opportunities, responsibilities and power and so treats others as equals…”

“George Lansbury would have approved of Community Links opposition to poverty, its insistence on local control and its integrity.… He served as an East End MP and borough Councillor for much of the period 1900 to 1940 and his home was always open to those in need. … Lansbury was not ashamed to talk about love. He wrote “I love England and especially dear, ugly east London.. I want people to join me in striving to bring love into all our lives” …

“Love of this nature” concluded Bob “will not allow one section of our population to be in luxury and power while others are poor and powerless. I commend Community Links because it is doing something to stimulate this kind of social love”

The Lansbury quote appeared also in Bobs 1990 biography of the politician. Its title recalled the Labour leader’s local epithet: “Good Old George.” I looked out my tatty edition last night along with an equally dog eared “Faith in the Poor” which he compiled eight years later. It was a simple collection of conversations with people in poverty – people, he said, who knew better than anybody what would be right for them, their families and others in similar positions. Tucked into the back of my copy are some of Bob’s letters, often angry but always resolutely hopeful and determined, generous, passionate, funny and humble. Helena Kennedy QC is quoted on the back cover: “Cabinet ministers should go and sit at the feet of Bob Holman”.

How very sad it is that that moment has passed. Now more than ever politicians and policy makers of all political persuasions, not to mention public service managers, third sector leaders and community workers everywhere, should surely read the book.

Good old Bob.

Displacement is not prevention: acting earlier to prevent homelessness

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

Homelessness is a problem that has often been met with strange solutions. Take the so-called ‘homelessness prevention spikes’ that we’ve written about before, in which spikes are fitted near buildings to prevent rough sleeping. Rather than deal with the causes of that person’s homelessness and enable them to take steps towards finding a home, it merely displaces them somewhere else to be somebody else’s problem.

It is no wonder that many individuals find it hard to escape homelessness when such approaches not only exist, but are deemed suitable ways to address the issue. I was reminded of this ‘prevention’ technique when reading about Bournemouth Council’s homelessness strategy, which claims to be putting £200,000 towards “assertive techniques and procedures”. Part of this involves buying rough sleepers one-way train tickets to move them out of the area. As with the spikes, rather than dealing with causes of homelessness this strategy deals with their consequences; rendering rough sleepers invisible (to the residents of Bournemouth) and foisting their problems on somebody else. By this logic as long as rough sleepers are not in ‘our’ area then they are no longer ‘our’ problem.

A different approach

Over the past six months we’ve been collecting stories of early action, exploring how individuals and organisations are acting one step earlier in order to solve the root causes of social and economic problems such as homelessness.

To be fair to Bournemouth, their Housing Strategy does go into a bit more detail about their use of the central government Homelessness Prevention Grant (although, slightly worryingly, that has now been absorbed into general council funding) and provide some additional services for those experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Information is scant, however, and other areas seem to be taking a much more proactive, systemic and partnership based approach.

Most recently we heard about the Active Inclusion project in Newcastle (AIN). By working in partnership, AIN enables people to avoid homelessness wherever possible by making advice, information, and support from a range of organisations far easier to access. It works primarily on three levels, from primary prevention (‘information and support for all to identify risks and prevent crises’), through secondary prevention (‘specialist support, accommodation and advice for those at risk’), to crisis activities (‘for people who are literally homeless’). As a result of activities – which can be anything from welfare and debt advice to emergency accommodation – AIN has helped prevent 4,192 potential cases of homelessness in 2014/15.

Another example is Dundee City Council’s Homeless Service Unit. This unit runs a range of services targeted at those at risk of homelessness, from raising awareness among 16 year olds about planning for independent living, to giving people leaving care or prison support through a key worker. They make between 1,000 and 1,500 homelessness assessments each year and it adapts services to reflect need; for example one of the fastest growing reasons for homelessness is insecurity within the private rented sector (stay tuned for our private rented sector briefing that will be published in the coming weeks).

The Passage – a London based charity highlighted in our latest report – have also taken an explicitly preventative approach (whilst also maintaining essential crisis-oriented services). Most notably their Hospital Discharge Service identifies homeless patients (or those at risk of homelessness) who repeatedly present at A&E and refers them to more appropriate services that deal with their underlying crisis. After working with 300 people last year through this service, 70% of them ended up going into accommodation after leaving hospital. They also run a Home for Good service that enables formerly homeless people to connect with local voluntary and community sector organisations, with 97% of the people they worked with retaining their homes after 12 months (as opposed to 84% without this intervention).

Prevention is about more than displacement

These three examples – by no means the only ones to exist across the UK – highlight that homelessness prevention can (and indeed should) be about more than displacement. Early action at its core is about enabling people to flourish, rather than merely preventing them from experiencing negative outcomes (or, in some cases, simply displacing their problems elsewhere).

It also raises an important point about what we measure and how this drives activity. In much the same way as certain types of policing – traditionally driven by the enforcement model (i.e. charging around under blue flashing lights, making arrests, and ‘kicking down doors’) – can drive up arrest statistics, Bournemouth’s attempt to reduce levels of rough sleeping may well ‘work’ when we look at the statistics in a year’s time. But will their ‘assertive’ train-ticket buying ‘techniques’ have actually achieved anything positive for those at risk of or experiencing homelessness? Will they be securely housed and leading happier, healthier and more productive lives? Unless they catch a train to Newcastle or Dundee, I’d guess probably not.

Functional, fulfilling and friendly: Developing the Bumping Places

Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

During a visit to an Age UK volunteering event on Wednesday, the new mayor of London outlined a series of plans “to improve social integration and ensure more Londoners develop strong relationships with people of different faiths, race, economic background and age”.  His intentions included “using design and planning to ensure people spend more time meeting people from different backgrounds, for example by ensuring all schools have a sheltered space at the entrance so parents can stop and talk as they drop their children at school.”  

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Regular readers of this blog will recognise the genesis of this simple idea, and parents of primary school children will have seen its potential for themselves. Local networks expand and improve when new parents join the school gate fraternity.  It is a physical locus, of course, but the shared interest and experience of the group makes it much more than just a physical intersection. A peer network evolves sharing knowledge, personal support and often practical help. My mother’s friendship group when she died at 79 still included women she met outside my first classroom.

We don’t need a research grant to understand why this works better at some schools than others. I think of two schools close to us here in Newham. One, on a very busy road, doesn’t allow adults into the playground. The other welcomes parents into an open sided shelter with a few benches in the playground just outside the Year One class rooms. Guess which one works betters as the kind of informal bumping place that, to use the mayors phrase, “improves social integration and ensures more Londoners develop strong relationships with people of different faiths, race, economic background and age”.

Why does this work naturally at the school gate but not, for instance, at the station where a regular crowd also gather at 8.05 day after day? We identified three characteristics of successful “platforms for community building”.

FUNCTIONALITY was the primary reason that people engaged with their platforms, whether that was to pick-up or drop-off their children, sing in a choir, or buy a cup of coffee. Each platform was also FULLFILLING in one way or another, allowing participants to reap benefits from involvement such as learning a new skill or feeling as if they had contributed to something. Finally, it was the FRIENDLINESS of each platform that cemented participant’s motivation to engage.”

Some of this can’t be achieved with Planning Guidance and Regulation or mayoral dictat, but simple observation shows that the design of the built environment is where it all begins and has a critical influence on the quality and quantity of our local networks. Just watch the parents hurry away, heads down, from the first aforementioned school and see how in the other playground parents stay and chat in the evening whilst their children play together.  We can design social integration into the places where we live or we can design it out.

A huge amount of evidence shows why this matters. The IPPR’s Shared Ground report for instance noted the importance of shared spaces as a way of building cohesion and countering anti-immigration sentiments. Stronger neighbourhoods have less crime. Loneliness is twice as deadly as obesity and 4 times more people find work through friends and neighbours than through the Jobcentre.

The Mayor described social integration as “the key to a more productive, healthier and ultimately more prosperous city for all Londoners”. Making the numerous bumping places in our complex urban environment “functional, fulfilling and friendly” isn’t an alternative to, or a distraction from, a big mayoral vision like tackling extremism, reducing crime or beating unemployment, it is the making of it.

Don’t read this blog

Monday, April 18th, 2016

There is so much to be learnt from the seven early action stories which we published last week that your time would be far better spent reading the report than reading this blog…

Back again so soon? Well no doubt you will have your own list of favourite insights from the case studies, but here are mine:

1) Early action CAN be measured:

Early action sceptics and naysayers often argue that you can’t count what doesn’t happen, and that even if you could count it, you wouldn’t be able to assess the saving with any accuracy. Boilers on Prescription did both. They can show very clearly that, within 18 months and as a direct result of their work, the need for GP appointments for their chronically sick client group had fallen by 60% and that the number of people admitted to hospital had fallen by 25%. Given that each doctor’s appointment costs £50 and each admission costs £2500 it isn’t difficult to understand how they justify the claim that their investments in household heating improvements are recovered within 9 months. Other featured projects could be similarly precise about the “business case” for their work. We really must stop tolerating the idea that early action can’t be measured.

2) A better today as well as a better tomorrow:

The numbers also emphatically dismiss the other urban myth about early action – that preventative activity always takes a very long time to bear fruit. The Passage “Homes for Good” project works to prevent repeated homelessness and has, over the last year, enabled 97% of its formerly homeless clients to retain their homes as opposed to 84% of the clients who received no such support. People are befitting within 12 months. As NCT chief executive Nick Wilkie said at the launch of the report yesterday “we are often told that we have to choose between dealing with a problem today or preventing it tomorrow. Actually that isn’t so. Early action is about a better today and a better tomorrow”.

3) The value of light touch relationships:

We have noted before that strong relationships are frequently part of the most effective early action programmes. Relationship based projects like the Ceredigion Specialist intervention Team  and Includem featured in the report and reinforce this point, but the experience of Detecting Cancer Early shows that, in some circumstances, this approach doesn’t need to be as intensive, and therefore as expensive, as we might first imagine. A sympathetic phone call, as opposed to a dessicated text, is increasing take up of cancer screening appointments in east London by 15%.

4) Partnerships with unlikely friends:

There are lots of reasons why partnership working is frequently a sensible thing to do but invariably this means working with people like us and organisations like ours. The remarkable Call and Check initiative in Jersey utilises the “delivery platform” of the postal service to improve health and social care on the island and the Passage’s Before you Go programme has partnered with, amongst others, embassies in Bulgaria, Lithuania, Romania and Poland. Whether it is the postie or the ambassador stretching our imaginations to work with unlikely friends brings new and quite different resources to the mission.

5) Building on strengths:

Launching the report yesterday Big Lottery Fund CEO Dawn Austwick noted that funders too often ask “what’s the matter with you” rather than “what matters to you?” In other words grant makers and commissioners and indeed many policy makers and practitioners, look for a deficit to fill rather than an asset to build on. All the featured projects, in their different ways, flipped this around looking for strengths sometimes in improbable places. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jobs, Friend and Houses where the “recovery community” in Blackpool are working together on renovating and renting out derelict properties . Most are ex offenders with a history of alcohol or drug dependency. After 2 years 5% have relapsed, none have reoffended. These are people who are, often for the first time in their lives, focusing on what they can do, clearly very well, not on what they can’t. “We look at today and tomorrow” says CEO Steve Hodgkins “not yesterday”.

These seven stories are the first in a new gallery of case studies that we will be building up over the coming months. Do please get in touch if you are part of a story that should be told.