Reigate and Banstead’s community development workers are a key part of the borough council’s work to tackle social isolation. They are embedded in the community and work with people of all ages, helping establish volunteer networks for older people, intergenerational art and craft groups and activities for teenagers and young people.
What was done?
Reigate and Banstead Borough Council has a team of five community development workers who work with local people to develop community-driven projects. They cover six neighbourhoods - the areas which rank highest on the index of multiple deprivation– one of the workers covers two areas that are located close together.
The team was established in 2017 – up to that point only one neighbourhood had a community development worker. One of the key focusses of their work is to reduce isolation by encouraging activities and helping to connect communities.
Head of Community Partnerships Justine Chatfield said: “The mantra is facilitate and enable – I joke that as a team we should have that tattooed on our arms. The team are not there to do stuff to our communities, to run or provide services. Instead the goal is to enable communities to develop their own schemes.
“It is about connecting organisations, tapping into the key people in each area and finding out what they need. The workers are on the streets, in the church halls and community centres. They are really part of the community. If projects need funding, the team can help communities to access grants or we do have a small pot of grant funding we can offer.
Obviously there has been a lot of work with older people, but it goes much further than that – people of all ages can be isolated.
The community development workers have helped develop a wide range of schemes over the years. These include a ‘good neighbour’ scheme in one area where a network of volunteers has been set up to support the frailer members of society who may struggle to access services. This includes everything from taking them out to activities and to do their shopping, to tasks such as walking their dog. There are 30 volunteers who give up their time, helping more than 60 of their fellow residents.
Tracey Agnew, who manages the team of community development workers, said: “As well as helping with every day practical tasks, it is also about the personal relationship that develops. The volunteers will stop and have a cup of tea and a chat. It means people who would otherwise be very isolated are connected to the community around them.
“But it is not just the older members of our communities that are supported. We have had young families who have been helped as well – cases where a family has had to be rehoused because of domestic violence and are isolated and just need a little help with things like the school run.”
Other schemes include a social group for South East Asian women where they socialise and exercise together and an intergenerational arts and crafts group on one estate, which sees young families and older residents gather together on a Saturday afternoon every month.
Ms Agnew said: “They have both proved really popular and self-sustaining. That is the key – we help get it up-and-running and give the community the tools they need and then step back.
“In another area a worker helped young people access some new sporting facilities. There had been a new development which included a leisure centre. It has a 4G pitch and gym. But it was too expensive for some of the local residents – we had young people breaking in to play football. The worker obtained some funding and they started putting on football sessions for just a £1. You may not think of that as something that tackles isolation, but it does bring communities together.
There is a risk when you have shiny new developments, existing residents can feel pushed out and marginalised. And anti-social behaviour can make people stay in more, scared to go out.
Ms Chatfield said developing strong relationships between local government, the NHS and the voluntary sector is key to making progress on social isolation. “I have noticed the relationships have been getting stronger, particularly during the pandemic – we had a GP refer one of their patients to one of our community development worker for support.
“The GP was identifying patients they thought would benefit from non-health interventions to prevent their health conditions becoming acute. One patient was supported by our team to get online, to access adaptions to make household tasks easier and connected to a women’s group for social contact.”
But she said despite the progress that has certainly been made over the years, there were still improvements to be made. “I don’t think local government and health partners fully understand each other – how we both work and how we can work together and with local communities to achieve better outcomes for local residents.
“I have produced a guide to what we as a borough council can do aimed at our colleagues in the health sector, especially local GPs - it is easy for people to get confused, especially in a two-tier authority. We don’t run public health, but we are very much involved in tackling loneliness and isolation.”
The pandemic has obviously seen some of the face-to-face activities stop, although many are now restarting. And where they could be held, they were. Ms Chatfield said: “As things eased we tried to run as much as we could safely. When there was the rule of six we were doing hybrid chair-based exercise classes, some people joining online and some in person at our community centres.”
The grants the council provides – there is a pot of £300,000 available – are also making a difference. This has helped fund a range of different voluntary sector groups to run activities, including a singing group for people with learning disabilities – the online version of which proved very popular during the lockdown.
Other plans are also being put in place. The council took the running of their three local community centres back in house in April last year. The goal is to increase use of them by all ages. “They are popular among the older communities. Our residents across age groups have told us they would like the centres to be places to connect. We want them to become real hubs for the whole community where different generations can come together.”
Justine Chatfield, Head of Community Partnerships, Reigate and Banstead Borough Council: