By Ben Pitt
The Support Fenland project starts in earnest with a round-table discussion with council officers about what the voluntary and community sector needs to help it flourish.
Many people see “the council” as a single organisation that does things like parks and bins, but the reality is that Cambridgeshire has four tiers of local government – parish and town councils, district councils, the county council and the combined authority. Each has its own areas of responsibility but they all take an interest in keeping residents healthy and happy. Building strong communities is a vital part of that.
While the elected councillors or Mayor might be the most visible side of local councils, the bulk of work is carried out by council staff. They include dedicated teams at Fenland District Council and Cambridgeshire County Council to support communities. Meanwhile, parish and town councils often have the closest links with the people in their town or village, and much of the work of the parish or town clerk is to respond to the specific needs of their residents. This often goes hand in hand with the activities of local community and voluntary groups.
At Hunts Forum and CCVS we want to ensure that our work in Fenland responds directly to the specific needs of the district. That’s why we started by talking to the council officers who work with residents on a daily basis. We were delighted to be joined by the community development teams from Cambridgeshire County Council and Fenland District Council, the clerks from Wisbech, Chatteris and Christchurch plus our friends at Living Sport and Cambridgeshire ACRE.
We started by asking what the communities of Fenland need from infrastructure organisations, and what the barriers were to accessing that support. Lots of answers came back. Some were practical, such as support with business planning and funding applications for new projects, a volunteer database and peer networking opportunities. Others were more strategic, such as umbrella organisations with the governance in place to hold funds, thereby allowing volunteers with a good idea to focus on delivering it.
Some points were more philosophical. How can we make volunteering a more ‘normal’ thing to do? How do we empower residents to feel that it’s their right to shape their community, rather than their burden? How do we give communities the confidence to seize opportunities?
Finally, we reflected on what infrastructure organisations and councils need to do to ensure that the voices of our communities are heard. The simple answer was to ask them, but there was also a recognition that communities need a reason to want to have that conversation.
We need to ensure that the various people whose job it is to support communities work together effectively, and that the Support Fenland project has a legacy. Too often, people and solutions are parachuted in and make a few ripples, but afterwards things fall back to the way they were before. Our challenge is to change the culture of volunteering and community action in Fenland for the better.
We’re looking forward to talking to the community activists to find out what their perspective is.
The graphics below capture the views expressed during the discussion. Click them to view full screen.