Blog #4: Foundations for a stronger community
Ben Pitt, Communities Officer
15 November 2019
In my last blog post I reported on the results of my survey of Soham community services, which I presented to local residents at the inaugural meeting of Soham Community Association.
Residents discuss the future of Soham at the post-survey meeting
Since then I followed this up with another meeting to look at the survey in more detail. I was joined by eight residents, along with Wendy Lansdown from Cambridgeshire County Council’s Neighbourhood Cares team. We looked at some of the key findings of the survey, such as gaps in youth provision and concerns that some young people expressed about not feeling safe.
There was a discussion about how community groups sometimes seem to work in isolation or even with a sense of competition with each other, and there was a consensus that groups could do more to support each other. Another key topic was the reputation and identity of Soham, which are inevitably still influenced by the tragic events of 2002. There was a desire expressed at the meeting to nurture an atmosphere of positivity and pride in the town, where the community is supportive of one another and optimistic for the future.
It’s a vision that few people would argue with, but identifying and navigating the route to delivering it isn’t so easy. The recently formed Soham Community Association was seen a potential driver. It was established primarily to take ownership of a free community newsletter, which by itself has great potential to bring the community together and shape the narrative of the town. The community association also has the potential to take on lots of other roles, such as bringing community activists together to develop a shared vision for the town, and providing a first point of contact for residents who want to get more involved in community life and perhaps start a new project.
A small pot of money was made available as an incentive to encourage people to complete the survey, and this meeting was an opportunity for residents to decide how this should be spent. The decision was made to donate it to Soham Community Association to fund an event that would bring the community together. Various ideas were suggested but it was left to the association to make a decision at one of its own meetings.
The Community Lunch is a great opportunity for community groups to exchange information and ideas.
Since May my work has focused on supporting the community association while it finds its feet and figures out its objectives for the next 12 months. The team has done a great job securing advertising from local businesses for the newsletter and is looking to expand the team and spread the workload in producing the newsletter. They have attended various community events to spread the word about the community association, and have taken over hosting the Community Lunch events at Soham Library. These happen quarterly and are a great opportunity for a wide variety of community-focused organisations, from charities and community groups to schools and healthcare professionals, to keep each other updated and support each other.
The future of Soham Community Association isn’t guaranteed, as there is currently a small core team that are already heavily involved in other projects. As such, it’s essential that the association manages its own aspirations and operates at a level that is sustainable. That means taking on projects only when resources allow. However, that can also make it difficult for the association to demonstrate its worth to outsiders. I hope that the group can balance these challenges and grow slowly but surely to support its aims to strengthen community life in Soham.
My time in Soham was always intended to be for a limited period, so it has been reassuring to see my colleagues at Cambridge CVS (one of our partners in the Support Cambridgeshire contract) coming to Soham to deliver training and one-to-one support. In August 2019 they delivered a workshop on writing fundraising applications, along with a chance to discuss projects with representatives from key funders. This was followed in November by another workshop on organising fundraising events. The team at Cambridge CVS have also been supporting a resident who is working towards launching a community radio station.
I’m looking forward to keeping in touch with the people I’ve met in Soham, and continuing to support them where I can. Building communities can be a complex process but they certainly have the determination and the skills to succeed.
Blog #3: Launching and Reporting
Ben Pitt, Communities Officer
10 April 2019
Work is finally complete on my survey of community life in Soham. Please click here to read my report. In it you’ll find the views of 313 people, aged from seven to 93. They were asked nine questions about their town, such as their favourite things about Soham, their biggest concerns and what new activities they’d like to see.
The results paint a detailed picture about community life and how local residents feel about it. They were generally positive, with most people describing Soham as “Friendly” and only a few describing it as “Antisocial” and “Lonely”. However, concerns were expressed that the town looked scruffy and that the high street lacked variety. Young people made various comments that suggested that they sometimes didn’t feel safe when out and about. There was a demand for more things for young people to do, although the young people themselves didn’t use the words “youth club”. There was also a desire for a swimming pool and improved sports facilities generally.
The survey report has a number of purposes: to map existing organisations and facilities, to help local residents and partner organisations understand the shared concerns and aspirations of residents, to encourage community engagement in addressing these concerns and aspirations, and to provide evidence for future funding applications. I hope that the report will be the catalyst for a conversation among residents about what can be done to make their town a better place to live.
Chair Brenda Francis talks at the launch of the Soham Community Association
The report was completed to coincide with the first public meeting of Soham Community Association. As reported in my last blog post, a group of local residents have been busily writing a constitution and mission statement. These were formally adopted on 20 February 2019 at a first General Meeting, followed by an official public launch event on 4 April. There was a good turn out of around 35 people, including representatives of local community organisations, councillors and interested members of the public. The committee explained their journey to date, their plans for the future and their willingness to include anyone who lives, works or volunteers in Soham as members of the association. It was also the perfect opportunity for me to report back on my survey’s findings, and how these can feed into the objectives and projects for Soham Community Association.
My next task is to follow up with a more in-depth discussion with residents about the survey’s findings, and to explore how the community might want to respond.
Blog #2: Surveys, Directories and Constitutions
Ben Pitt, Communities Officer
7 February 2019
It’s now five months since I started working in Soham, and while time has flown by, there are some exciting developments to report.
A key part of my work is to understand the existing likes, concerns and ambitions of local residents. This information is gathered partly through one-to-one conversations; I’ve really enjoyed meeting a wide range of people from the local churches, VIVA Community Arts group, town and district councillors, teachers, students and a wide range of community activists.
The other route to understanding residents’ views is via an online and paper survey. I’ve been collecting responses since September and have received 262 to date. I’m particularly grateful to Sawtry Village Academy, Shade Primary School and Weatheralls Primary School for their help in encouraging the young people of Soham to make their voices heard. I’ve begun the process of analysing responses to identify common themes, and it’s particularly interesting to see how the generations see their town differently. I’m looking forward to being able to report back on these findings soon.
Local residents and partner organisations get together to discuss their vision for Soham Community Association
In the meantime, various other projects have been keeping me busy in Soham. The Community Lunch hosted by Cambridgeshire County Council’s Neighbourhood Cares team is a great opportunity for community groups and individuals to get together to share information, ideas and resources. At the last meeting in December there was a recognition that it wasn’t easy to keep track of who’s who, what each organisation does and how people can get involved. This lead to a suggestion of a directory of community services and volunteering opportunities, which I’m in the process of compiling. To date I have 14 organisations’ details but I know there are many more still to be included. I hope that once it’s published, others will come forward to add their details.
Communication is a key part of bringing communities together, and so the town owes its thanks to Mike Donoghue of Royal British Legion Soham for producing a community newsletter for the town. However, the newsletter has outgrown the local RBL Branch, and needs another organisation to handle its finances. This prompted discussions about a new community association for Soham and the various benefits that it could bring: enabling better communication and partnership working, supporting grassroots community projects, hosting events, giving local residents a voice and promoting a positive image of the town.
Following these initial discussions, a group of local residents – assisted by Support Cambridgeshire, Neighbourhood Cares and Care Network – have been working on a mission statement, constitution, logo and key objectives for Soham Community Association. The aim is to adopt the constitution later this month and take ownership of the newsletter from April. These are exciting times for Soham… watch this space!
Blog #1: Setting Up in Soham
Ben Pitt, Communities Officer
12 October 2018
Support Cambridgeshire is now up and running in Soham, helping local residents to enrich community life in their town. After months of discussions with partner organisations and the inevitable wait to hear if we had secured funding, work started in earnest on 4 September 2018.
An Awards for All grant from the Big Lottery Fund covers my wages for one day per week for 12 months along with various administrative costs. During this time I have two simple goals: the first is to find out what the people of Soham want. The second is to help them achieve it.
It’s been a great help to have Cambridgeshire County Council’s Neighbourhood Cares team and Care Network’s Connected Communities team already active in Soham. They have established strong links with the local community and have been instrumental in getting some superb projects up and running, such as the Repair Café and regular community coffee mornings at the library. Neighbourhood Cares hosts a quarterly Community Lunch that brings together all of the community-focused organisations that are active in Soham. This was the ideal opportunity for me to meet key people and introduce my work.
I’ve also had the opportunity to meet some local residents, many of whom are bubbling with big ideas for their town. Their enthusiasm is infectious and I hope I can help to turn their aspirations into reality. Already there is talk of a new community association to create an open forum that brings people together to work collaboratively. I think this is a fantastic idea, and one that Support Cambridgeshire will do everything it can to support.
It’s really exciting to be inundated with suggestions for new projects, but I’m also keen to reach out to the wider population of Soham. Often there is a core of community activists in a given location, but also an untapped resource of people who would like to be more involved (as long as it fits in with their lives) but who aren’t yet part of the community scene.
One of the objectives of my survey is to find these people. The survey asks some simple questions: what’s the best thing about Soham? What’s your biggest concern? What new community activities would you like to see? I hope that this will encourage local residents to think critically and creatively about their town, and in the process, think of ways they might like to get more involved. Becoming an active member of a community might seem like a burden but those who do it know how hugely rewarding it can be.
The survey was launched at the Soham Pumpkin Fair on 29 September. I was told this was the highlight of the social calendar, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The community was out in force, there was so much to do and I’m still struggling to comprehend the size of some of those pumpkins! Thanks again to the Community Cares team and the Royal British Legion for inviting me to share their stall with them.
The survey is now available in paper form at the library, and also online at www.bit.ly/sohamsurvey. I’m very grateful to Wendy Lansdown at Community Cares, Rev’d Eleanor Whalley at St Andrews Church and Richard Pearce, Assistant Principal at Soham Village College for their help in getting the word out to residents. The responses are now coming in… I’m really looking forward to reading them.