By Nick Sinclair
I was recently speaking with a good friend of mine who is a Structural Engineer for the railways. He told me he’s not usually involved with building bridges, Civil Engineers tend to do that, rather it’s his job to maintain them keeping them strong and functional. These railway bridges of course play a vital role in connecting people together, allowing people to go about their business without the disruption of having to wait for trains to pass or to travel unnecessary miles to get around. I asked him a really obvious question. What would happen if he and his colleagues didn’t check and maintain them? He told me that after some time we’d regularly be seeing bridges collapsing with terrible consequences all over the country.
It struck me that no one would question the logic of paying careful attention to physical bridges. To ignore the maintenance of a bridge would mean accepting future catastrophe. The conversation got me thinking about the metaphorical bridges within our communities and how much they also require careful attention to avoid catastrophe. I wondered who are the equivalent Civil and Structural Engineers in our communities and what are they doing to build and help maintain bridges respectively?
The bridge builders I meet within communities are typically people rich in passion and knowledge. They are often unrecognised outside of their particular community, but they are certainly considered well known assets within it. Whether they be formally constituted as a group of individuals, a faith organisation, a group of friends or just individuals who care, it is their focus and presence that makes an enormous difference to the quality of life and the connectivity of that community. They help people get on with life and create the conditions for strengths to shine and lives to flourish. They tend to see building community as being all about building bridges between individuals, families, voluntary groups, public services etc. As we know maintaining those bridges in the long term is often a challenge though. This takes time and ongoing resource in all sorts of ways.
Local Area Coordinators can play a helpful role in all of this but not necessarily as bridge builders themselves. I’ll turn to that in a second, but firstly, by means of a quick summary:
Local Area Coordination is an approach that originated from Western Australia and has since been embraced by hundreds of communities across 11 local authorities in England and Wales. Local Area Coordinators are employees of a Local Authority and work intensively within communities as a resource to them. The approach aims to:
- Help individuals and families to get the life they want, not the service they may not need
- Help strengthen places, supporting communities to be welcoming, inclusive and healthy
- Create positive systems change by providing public sector services and other institutions a framework to work together cooperatively with communities
Local Area Coordinators do help build new bridges in communities but importantly only when absolutely necessary. A Coordinator is much more likely to focus their attention on identifying and supporting the builders to build and to maintain the bridges that are already in place. This is in part due to a very clear philosophy of nurturing what is already strong and being alongside people rather than taking power away, doing things to them or for them.
I recently saw this in action when I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with a group of residents who meet regularly together on an estate in Derby. The Local Area Coordinator was there in case anyone needed her input or if new people wanted to meet for a chat. Alongside the group’s leader, the Local Area Coordinator’s was strengthening the groups capacity to remain self-managed, connected, connecting and inclusive. It was brilliant to see.
Arguably some of the weaker bridges that exist within our society are the ones between communities and public services. Sometimes these bridges need to be strengthened and sometimes they need to be built again from scratch.
You don’t have to look hard to see an enormous effort going on in this area from the powerful and passionate community of individuals and organisations that make up Social Care Future. People like TLAP, Coalition for Collaborative Care, Shared Lives Plus, Wellbeing Teams, Community Circles, Community Catalysts and the Local Area Coordination Network. In this particular bridging challenge, we might find Local Area Coordination playing more of a building role. From the start of an area embracing the model, people from communities lead the recruitment of the Local Area Coordinators. This co-produced approach helps to cement the ethos that the Coordinator is a resource for that particular community. Given that Coordinators are employees of a Local Authority this is often a very different approach.
The logic of Local Area Coordination also helps bridges to be built or strengthened internally between sometimes disconnected service departments who come together to invest in and grow the approach alongside communities. All this allows for greater understanding and trust on all sides leading to stronger co-production and a shift of power from the traditional towards community orientated approaches.
I am firmly of the belief that we need to pay as much attention to our metaphorical bridges as we do our physical ones. Our communities need the Civil Engineers as much as we need the Structural Engineers to ensure bridges both within and out towards public service are properly built and sustained. This needs to happen in order to avoid communities becoming fragmented and people becoming isolated and disconnected. It also needs to happen to ensure that those in power are clear about the assets and challenges that surround them so important decisions are co-produced in a meaningful way. Local Area Coordination can play a powerful role in helping to make all of this happen.
Director Local Area Coordination Network