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Will the community response to coronavirus be sustained?

As the first wave of COVID-19 subsides, many Londoners have found their relationships with their neighbours and neighbourhoods transformed.

From the informal interactions of clapping for carers, to the speed with which mutual aid schemes and community networks were established, Londoners have rediscovered their social capital.

The challenge ahead, as discussed at a recent Centre for London webinar, is how the energy and responsiveness unleashed by the crisis can be sustained to benefit communities long term. WhatsApp networks are already growing quieter as people’s thoughts turn to how they can adapt to their new normal in coming months. But there is still an opportunity to be grasped.

The webinar heard stories of how new and existing networks had responded to the crisis, setting up food hubs in disused commercial spaces, establishing low-cost after-school clubs, and intervening to help people at risk of domestic violence. The circumstances of the crisis had made these responses difficult: councils were sometimes hard to reach, or more interested in borough-wide structures, buildings hard to access, and finances hard to manage.

In many places, these initiatives have used existing buildings and assets, and in particular drawn on existing trusted networks. This could be seen as the infrastructure – or the backbone – for community resilience, but the crisis was putting both infrastructure and networks at risk, as corporate and individual funding dried up, and government agencies began to look at how to cut costs. It was all too easy for funders to applaud local communities’ responsiveness to the crisis, while overlooking the foundations that supported that response.

The speed with which networks emerged and stepped up could obscure the years of groundwork that supported them – groundwork that had been funded, and will need further funding if it is to be sustained through what could be along and difficult recovery. With 85 per cent of charities reporting a loss of funding as a result of the pandemic, erosion of these foundations and of the resilience they provide was a real challenge.

If politicians want to build a recovery that works for everyone and addresses some of the inequalities that the crisis has laid bare, they need a deeper understanding of the third sector.

The sector should work together to make the case for supporting volunteering, and of the potential to build resilience and sustainability, through unlocking the power of communities to create change for themselves – as recommended in Act Local, Centre for London’s recent report on neighbourhood governance. We will be undertaking more research on new ways to bring business and resident interests together in coming months.

Webinar participants underlined the potential of social innovation to boost the long term sustainability of communities, particularly in the light of the social impact of the pandemic. But they also highlighted some risks and issues. Will new initiatives place too much focus on treating symptoms rather than causes, on setting up soup kitchens rather than considering food security? Will new structures that have survived purely on goodwill and energy be willing or able to assume a more formalised structure, without losing their momentum? And if they do, will they duplicate existing organisations and lead to scarce funding being spread even thinner?

The webinar discussion was wide-ranging, but there were a number of areas of consensus, principally about the importance of networks and the need for wider recognition of this. Policy makers and funders should value these, understand their role in promoting social sustainability, and support them as social infrastructure. For their part, community groups should collaborate across sectors – with local authorities and others – to strengthen networks, and ensure that new social innovations and community initiatives can be supported by existing structures and networks, and will complement their work.

Centre for London has previously argued for a more comprehensive London-wide strategy for giving. The Centre will also be undertaking further work in the coming months on new ways of engaging citizens in the evolution of its town centres and high streets, one of many projects that will be looking again at how the COVID-19 crisis could reset relations between people and place.

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Richard Brown is Deputy Director of Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter. Read more from him here.