The King's Fund GSK IMPACT award winners, announced this month, once again highlighted the huge contribution communities can make to improved health and care.
In Cumbria, one of the winners had been engaging more than 330 volunteers in providing a variety of social support initiatives, ranging from cooking classes for newly single men to exercise and walking groups. With cuts continuing to bear down on social care and the NHS, could communities provide some of the solutions?
The NHS Five Year Forward View helpfully recognises the 'renewable energy' that resides within communities, but these plans alone will not lead to changes happening on the ground. In areas that have vibrant communities, there is often an organic growth of an eclectic mix of organisations responding to specific issues or needs - rather than grand designs imposed from above. Want to do keep fit and help others? Now you can combine exercise with running errands for frail older people. Want to enjoy a cocktail party but can't easily leave your care home? Then there are people who can host a party for you. But what is happening in Bath will be very different from that taking place in Birmingham. The capacity of communities and the local responses in each area is very different.
There are some steps that statutory organisations can take to help facilitate the creation of stronger communities. They can commission services in a way that enables smaller, innovative and outcome-focused services to enter the local market. With just a small funding pot for community projects, Luton council funded Penrose Roots, a gardening club aimed at reducing isolation. Starting with a simple idea, and a tiny bit of investment, it has grown into an award-winning enterprise helping many people recover from mental ill health and social isolation.
Statutory organisations can also train staff to think differently about how they provide care, looking for people's capability, skills and potential. We call it a strength-based approach;- identifying and harnessing the natural strengths we have so we can do more for ourselves and others. Finally, they can find better ways to involve and inspire volunteers, working with creative and innovative organisations - such as Penrose Roots (where I'm a trustee), and the organisations recognised in the King's Fund impact awards.
There is a growing body of evidence that community-based approaches are working, Derby City Council saved £800k through the introduction of Local Area Coordination, an approach to care giving that seeks to connect people with their communities and a range of sources of support.
However, building the capacity of communities to be more self-supporting is not a panacea. We still require well resourced, professionally staffed, quality providers of care. We also cannot expect local people to provide quality care and support without adequate training and support. But with the growing financial challenges that the public sector faces, communities just have to be part of the solution.