by Vidhya Alakeson, Chief Executive of Power to Change
Visit the Bevy on a Friday lunch time and you’ll find 40 or so older people tucking into a hot lunch and enjoying the company of others. For too many, it’s the only time in the week they get out and socialise and it’s possible because the Bevy minibus and local volunteers collect those who can’t get there themselves.
Friday Friends is one of the many things that makes the Bevy, the first community-owned pub on a housing estate in the UK, so special. Rescued by local people after a period of forced closure due to anti-social behaviour, the Bevy is in all senses a community pub. Local people own it, they staff it, and they take care of it. The Bevy serves much more than a pint; it is a point of connection for people of all ages on the Moulsecoomb estate in Brighton. The Bevy does not provide a social care service in the formal sense. No one commissions it. But it, and other community organisations like it, are critical to a sustainable future for social care.
The latest estimates indicate that there is a £1.3 billion hole in the social care budget that needs filling just to stand still and we are right to clamour for more funding. But without building a foundation of social infrastructure that can work alongside formal services, we have no hope of ever closing the funding gap. If we start from the premise that need must be met by a service response, we will find ourselves forever in a funding crisis.
Prevention and early intervention have been victims of austerity, in social care as in other services, as thresholds have risen and funding has focused on the most acute needs. But communities are increasingly taking matters into their own hands. Many are seeking to rebuild their own social infrastructure, recognising that much of what we previously relied on such as local authority-run children’s centres, youth clubs and community centres have gone. In some places, there is no longer even a café in which to meet to plan a different, better future.
Heart of Hastings is a good example of the kind of community response we need. It’s first and foremost a community land trust, seeking to transform a disused site in the Ore Valley, Hastings, into an affordable housing development. While it raises funds and seeks planning permission, it has drawn in volunteers from the local community to clear and manage the site and create a sense of hope and possibility locally in what is a highly disadvantaged area. Many of those who volunteer have faced difficulties in their lives, from mental health problems and addictions to long term unemployment and learning disabilities. But through volunteering at Heart of Hastings, they have found a sense of purpose and camaraderie that has improved their well-being and, in a few cases, been quite life changing.
Many of the people who are committed to Heart of Hastings would not qualify for any kind of social care service and would not set foot in one either. The support they need is best delivered through informal, community connection. As the latest Kings Fund report into realigning community services highlights, there is a need to ‘make the best use of all the community’s assets to plan and deliver care to meet local needs’. According to the report, we need to draw on ‘the full range of statutory services, voluntary and community sector organisations, private sector organisations, support groups, social networks, individuals, buildings and community spaces’. 
Of course, social care more than the NHS has long recognised the value, both in human and financial terms, of informal support. In fact, the introduction of personal budgets was for many people an attempt to use service money to access things that weren’t services but contributed to a good life: the ability to go on holiday as a family rather than using respite care’; the ability to go out with friends rather than attending a day service. And many of the latest innovations in social care from Community Circles to Local Area Coordination recognise the value of community connection as a foundation for a more resilient social care system.
However, we are still too focused on services. To date, coproduction has tended to address the role that those who use services can play in shaping the design and implementation of those services. We need to go much further to give communities real control to shape the way ahead and support them to create inclusive futures in which those who need additional support can find it within the community and not always in a service, set apart. Unless we build a bedrock of community capacity on which the formal system relies, our social care future won’t look too different from our past.
There are a lot of potential Bevys out there; part of the answer to the future of social care lies in the untapped potential of our communities.
 Charles at al (2018) Reimagining Community Services: Making the most of our assets, London: The King’s Fund.