This case study is an example of the practical use of asset-based approaches in communities.
Well Rotherham is one of 10 pathfinder sites established under the Well North programme. Hosted by South Yorkshire Housing Association, supported by Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council and funded by Public Health England the project is based in the Rother Valley, specifically Waverley. This new development is the home of the Advanced Manufacturing Park, a housing development of 4,000 homes and set in 180 acres of green space.
Rotherham set out to test what happens if you look for the assets of an area and harness them to create healthy communities focussing on three key aspects of a strong community co-designed with key partners and community members at the project outset – a great place to live, work and play. This was also a chance to work alongside a brand new community, explore how community networks grow and flourish and how new and established communities can knit together.
The initiative had a strong iterative and developmental focus, testing out approaches to relationship building, engagement and empowerment and in seeking to build community action led by local people. At a community level the programme approached key community connectors already working in the area and launched the Well Rotherham initiative alongside them. By facilitating community conversations asking people what they love about the area, what they want for the area and what they can offer to their community and framing the questions in a positive and aspirational way gave people to chance to talk about their community and their own strengths with pride.
Through the programme’s work with the community, it was identified that constituted groups in the area had access to a range of funding opportunities but for those with a great idea for the neighbourhood that they wanted to test there was little available. With this in mind the programme wanted to focus on individuals and informal groups keen to do something themselves and we set up the Great Ideas scheme, giving grants up to £300 for anyone living in the area who wanted to initiate a volunteer and resident led project. There were some great projects such as a pamper day for older people delivered by a local beautician and the local book club coming together to install a book exchange in the community. People were cooperating to develop a community garden and re greening initiatives in the neighbourhood.
After the first meeting in one area, a group of parents who wanted to see more activities for their kids set up a Facebook group which has already been the catalyst for a local running and walking group. The wellbeing dividend from such action cannot be undervalued.
Well Rotherham has also focused on a place-based ethos, seeking to leverage development on a range of spatial issues; developing a multiuser trail to connect Waverley to other green and blue assets in the local area; on a borough wide level working to stimulate new social enterprises which will increase social connectivity in Rotherham. This flux between local and borough wide initiatives has been a significant aspect of the Well Rotherham. The Well Rotherham team have really invested in local relationships and these have been key to the growth of the project. By bringing local people and groups together and proactively encouraging people to tell a friend or bring them along to a meeting attendance is good at each monthly community conversation event.
This has taken time to achieve. Building trust with communities is not a rapid process and in the final year of a three-year programme, the programme is finally embedding at the community level.
The barriers to informal community action have also been a key learning point for those involved. Whenever individuals or community groups have come up against power structures in the community there has been friction. For example, it was hard for parents to get permission to hold family events on community land managed by the parish council. For groups interested in growing in community green spaces, access and permissions have been tricky to navigate, often convoluted and multi-layered.
The most successful projects have been ones which did not need permission to go ahead. If we really want to see communities take more control of their health and wellbeing this needs to change. The programme has taken steps with local residents to engage with officers in the council to seek ways of managing these issues. The ability to understand the local eco system – power structures, organisational responsibilities, etc is key to developing community-based and community-led action. Perhaps as the council and its partner agencies who have traditionally ‘managed’ local community assets and infra structures begin to reorient their focus toward supporting people in taking action on these barriers will weaken.
In its final year, the programme plans to give community members a platform to share their successes and challenges with councillors, public and community organisations and create a space in which existing systems and ways of working can be challenged. Their voice and passion will act as a catalyst to change a system which needs communities to be more selfsufficient and resilient but is wary of the risk this approach entails.