Building Community Power: Speaking at Cooperative Party SW Regional Conference

At the Cooperative Party SW Regional Conference on March 26, I was asked to speak about how Stroud District and its communities are building community power, how our market towns and rural communities responded to the pandemic with increased community activity and how our Council is building on this.

What is a community? How can we know if it thrives and is resilient? What can we do about it?

I considered these questions when I put my thoughts together in preparing for this session. I will give some practical examples of what is happening in our community, but first a couple of general points.

First, the challenges we face are huge, and national, but locally we can make a difference, in finding solutions for our own places. Let us use that local pride of place, which the government referenced in the Levelling Up White Paper, and I know many in our own communities already feel very strongly. My own district is made up of market towns, and small rural communities, and we also have the largest number of SMEs and one of the strongest voluntary and community sectors in Gloucestershire, all of which gives us strength and resources to draw on and build community resilience.

Secondly, it is important to see this holistically. Communities are an ecosystem within which we need a healthy diversity of partners and of solutions, and we shouldn’t look at problems and solutions in isolation. As an example, our new five year council plan, which incorporated much of our 2021 Labour and Cooperative manifesto, is built around three key themes which are interlinked:

  • Community Resilience and wellbeing
  • Environment and Climate Change 
  • Economy, Recovery and Regeneration 

Let me now give some practical examples of what we are doing locally to build community resilience.

One key objective in our council plan is: Support communities to help each other and build resilience through a network of community hubs and other community-led networks, with mental and physical health and wellbeing at its heart

As a council, we are supporting the development of a Community Hub Network in Stroud District. Community Hubs are places that act as a central point of contact and support for their communities. Hubs are connectors of people, communities, local groups and voluntary sector organisations and a place where people can find friendship, positive things to do, acquire new skills and share their expertise, and get help and advice on food, housing, finances, health and wellbeing.

At the start of the pandemic, communities came together to play an active role in responding to the emergency with countless acts of kindness and solidarity.  Informal networks sprung up all over the district, helping to reach people in need of support and ensure everyone knew where and how to get help. We saw, for example, with the GL11 Community hub that every street in the area of the postcode they supported, each had volunteers ready to respond to local need, whether just a friendly phone call or delivering medicine. GL11 Community hub was already well established before the pandemic, a trusted local organisation, with a track record of responding to local need, but it became clear during the pandemic that the provision across the district was patchy. The new project, supported by the district council, aims to ensure learning from the pandemic is used to inform a plan that seeks to build community resilience through the development of a network of Community Hubs across Stroud district as well as sharing knowledge and best practice.

The challenges faced today will require our hubs even more.

Another example is from our council plan objective: 

Appoint Food Justice Champions to work with partners to tackle food injustice, set up a food partnership and develop a food strategy to address the causes of food poverty, promote sustainability and food justice

From this we have now established a Food Justice Task and Finish Group and are participating in the new Feeding Gloucestershire Partnership. The hubs play a really important role in not only distributing food but providing community cafes, with the chance to use those as incubators for training volunteers in skills and building social enterprises.

This leads me on to the Economy element of our council plan, and the objective:

Support the development of a diverse local economy of social enterprises, cooperatives and small businesses

Building resilience into our local economy is essential. As mentioned above, there is local expertise on building genuine social enterprises especially aimed at young people. Another example are community shops, one good example can be found in the village of Coaley near to me, the shop which was a real point of contact during the pandemic has now re-opened with a new building, a project overseen and delivered by the community and volunteers – not even asking for any council support! Coaley is a good example of a thriving village with a shop, school and pub that recently re-opened – we need to learn from what works here, what is the magic ingredient, and how we can support other villages that are struggling to hold onto services.

Another example is how as a council we are supporting our local high streets and working with our market towns, as member of the Coop Party High Streets Task Force I am particularly concerned about the challenges our high streets face and how we can see them bounce back from the pandemic. The towns were keen to support the local visitor economy, and there was pushback from them to having this as a top down project, but rather to be a collaborative and cooperative effort, so that a steering group of the towns and key local stakeholders is now being set up to work with the newly appointed tourism officer.

You may be familiar with the Gloucester Services on the M5, and here is a pioneering example of how we keep local wealth generated within our community, directed to where support is most needed. Gloucestershire Gateway Trust receive up to 3p in every £1 of non-fuel sales which is reinvested in local communities, people and projects, especially directed to our most deprived areas in the Stroud district and Gloucester areas.

I also wanted to mention the basic elements of a decent life. As a council that has its own housing stock, and with the ever greater challenges around fuel bills and fuel poverty, we have a 30 year programme to retrofit our council homes and we are building new homes to a high standard, with an A energy rating, solar and air source heat pumps. As well, outside of our own stock, we have won millions of £ of funding to direct towards home improvements for those people who aren’t council tenants but live in fuel poverty and have been identified by the local health services as at risk of health inequality as a result – another example of good local partnership working and joined up thinking. We also have two good examples of Community Land Trusts in our district that the council has assisted with support, land and grants, and the advantages of CLTs is that they are not subject to the right to buy and can implement a local lettings policy, so these homes remain owned by the community, available to local people, in perpetuity.

Transport is a major local issue for us with the county council refusing to increase bus subsidies, our local service to Cam and Dursley station has just been axed, and buses are regularly cancelled every day. Our local Cooperative party has been looking at the example of the Witney bus cooperative solution and if we could start a similar project here.

And finally, on the Environment and the greatest challenge we face from the climate and ecological emergency. We have recently recruited community representatives to sit on the 2030 Community engagement board, so a range of voices from the community are heard, and contribute to, our district’s ambitions to be carbon neutral by 2030.

Energy security is even more topical today, and one of our council objectives is:

Continue to increase renewable generation in the district and to decarbonise existing networks, and support community-owned renewable energy schemes

A local Advisory Panel for the Stroud ‘node’ of the Big Solar Coop is now being established, supported by funding and officer time from our council as well as representatives and funding from three town and parish councils to support the development of solar power and community energy projects. We have a well-established Climate Action Network, with groups participating from many of our local communities. The 2030 aspiration, as for all our council’s work, has recognised that our council must be an exemplar, and also an enabler and an encourager.

In sum, SDC sometimes leads, sometimes facilitates, in meeting the great challenges of our day, (which seem now to be ever greater) – and working towards making our communities more resilient. If we as a council can help create a better atmosphere within which all can operate, in the public, private and community sectors, then the ecosystem which is our community has a chance to be resilient, and to thrive.

The Cooperative Party’s new publication, Community Power can be found here.