Councillor Neil Prior, from Pembrokeshire County Council, shares his experience of WCVA’s practical action programme.
Over the last few months WCVA’s practical action programme has been listening to community groups to try to learn more about community-led action, how it can build recovery post pandemic and help create a fairer, more equal, green, sustainable and healthier future.
LLANRHIAN CONNECTED COMMUNITY
A simple internet search tells us that logistics is ‘the detailed organisation and implementation of a complex operation’. Our Connected Community project, whilst complex, is about more than just logistics.
The Connected Community is an initiative working to create a stronger and more resilient local community across an electoral division in Pembrokeshire, with a small team of residents who are aiming to help ‘connect’ people to their community to forge a greater sense of belonging.
This includes everything from small acts of everyday kindness through to understanding the current and future needs of the community to create a long-term vision to improve our area.
The ‘future generation’ focus is likely to include tackling big topics such as housing, climate and tourism, and while we are very much working in the now, we’ve also got to keep an eye on our future connected community, where people feel safe and healthy, and that they belong. We want to be long-term community builders.
DEVELOPING THE PROJECT
The project started in January 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we were able to appoint a funded community link officer, build a website and establish an emerging community presence.
Then working with Nesta, through the WCVA practical action programme, helped us get our early thinking off the ground. Since then we’ve built a team, built trust within that team, and even managed to hold our first ‘This is your Community’ day with around 15 community exhibitors, and over 50 residents attending. But the really interesting bit we’re learning is that this project is about more than just logistics.
Such a broad project, which ranges so widely from small acts of everyday kindness to creating a long-term vision, is hard to see and touch. When the extreme weather of the ‘Beast from the East’ struck in early 2018, leaving hundreds of properties across our rural area without water for nearly a week, I was able to co-ordinate the delivery and distribution of 20,000 litres of bottled water, as a community leader and through community power.
But that was logistical, and something that people could coalesce around. As it stands, our project doesn’t have that narrow ‘crisis’ focus.
THIS STUFF IS HARD TO MEASURE!
I’ve learned that to measure this stuff is hard when there isn’t a narrow focus, and even more so when it’s about empowering community action. Yes, people turned up to the ‘This is your Community’ event, but it’s about balancing the hard metrics against the community ethos that we’re nurturing.
We can get an immediate measurement on how many people turn up to an event, but our success is likely to be long-term. Institutions (such as local and national government) might look for this project to prove the benefit of devolving power to communities, whereas our focus is in improving community cohesion, connectedness and belonging, which is hard to firmly evidence.
Traditionally institutions might look to intervene to fix things, whereas we’re looking to prevent things needing fixing in the first place.
BEING ADAPTIVE AND RESPONSIVE
In these early days of our project, it’s very clear that we need to have an approach that is adaptable and responds to the community’s needs and feedback, as opposed to having a linear plan that sets out our actions and path for the next ten years – and that can be difficult for individuals and institutions to get their heads around.
The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act talks about ‘Connected Communities’ but seems to focus more on connection through travel networks: logistics again. Our ‘Connected Community’ is more on the human level; the sometimes intangible; the sense of belonging.
I’m questioning whether our institutions know what’s best, or whether they might need to let go a little bit and trust, and show greater support, to real grass-roots community action.
I’m also learning that I’m comfortable with where we are right now, which is in the building awareness and engagement phase of the project. We’re doing this by creating a presence, both virtually and physically, and at the time of writing, we are about to invite the community to complete a ‘what matters’ survey.
The results of that survey will be communicated in a few different ways to reach different parts of our community, but will give us the insights to build the long-term vision, and help us build a relationship with our community.
That relationship will help us build trust, and that’s going to help us harness community power to really create the ‘Connected Community’. Whilst I’m comfortable with that, I’ve learned that not everyone is, but as a community leader, I need to say ‘It’s ok, this is where we are going.’
LOOKING LONG TERM
The ‘where we are going’ is that long-term vision I’ve mentioned. The small acts of kindness happen every day, regardless of our project, and we can help facilitate and strengthen it, but the gap I see, and the place that I see the Connected Community occupying, is shaping, and ultimately enabling, through community power, a place where future generations will belong. And that’s not a logistical problem.
MORE ON THE PRACTICAL ACTION PROGRAMME
You can find out more about WCVA’s practical action programme in this blog – Connecting Communities: Listening is Key – by Babs Lewis.