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A Rural Parish Initiative

Author: Bob Rhodes

It is likely that our local experience is not dissimilar to that found in many ordinary rural communities?

One of my roles in life is as a Parish Councillor in what was historically a mining community at the heart of our beautiful Forest of Dean. I wasn’t long on Ruspidge & Soudley Parish Council before I understood that even our relatively small body, often by default, is compelled to devote inordinate time and various strands of public money sustaining public assets – in our case two community buildings and two playing fields – that our citizens rarely use and, seemingly, don’t value. 

Over recent decades our lives have changed and continue to change inexorably. Increasingly many citizens feel under pressure, strapped for time, insecure, lonely or isolated. Whether this is factually true or a consequence of the choices we make about how we use our time is debatable (on average we all work less hours than we did 40 years ago) but the simple fact remains that we are less likely to know our neighbours, less engaged in communal activities and the consequence has been a very discernible diminution of neighbourliness and informal and reciprocal ‘care’. 

Concurrently, especially over the last three decades, society has fallen prey to the fallacious idea that solutions to every need can be purchased. This has been reinforced by the marketization and commoditization of public services over the last 30 years and Governments and professionals have consistently reinforced the idea that “we should leave our living to them”. 

The consequences of this have been two-fold:

  • What used to be down to us (citizens, family, friends, neighbours, etc) is increasingly perceived as their business, and
  • Large sectors of the population have unwittingly become service, professional, and expert dependent and subtly diminished as citizens.

People continue to associate and organise – and crucially take the lead - around things that really matter to them but need to be exceptionally resourceful because the public institutions rarely lend their support unless people are prepared to amend their purpose to coincide with those institutions’ objectives. In the Forest of Dean, in common with many other communities, while people are to varying degrees making use of community facilities, those prepared to contribute to the governance and management of those facilities continues to fall. 

Contemporary community work tells us - as evidenced in the recent Participatory City research into initiatives in London and similar projects around the UK, and indeed in the plethora of statutory and voluntary community development initiatives that flourished between 1945 and the early 1990’s – is not that people don’t want to participate regularly, enjoy reciprocal neighbourliness, feel safer, live more sustainably, or benefit from enhance social capital; because they do! And it is not because people don’t have lots of exciting ideas about things they would like to take part in. It is essentially, it seems, that, for many reasons, people feel less confident and competent than was the case in the past to assume a leadership and coordinating role.

However, contemporary research and relatively recent history tells us that, when there is professional assistance available in the community to help citizens translate their passions into actions, things get done.

Presently, in response to the impact of austerity and public services cuts, community work is back on the agenda. Unfortunately, it is likely to stutter given our public institutions unfailing incapacity to understand that it is not a great idea to set out to co-opt citizens to deliver the Government’s programme. Effective community development takes place where people are supported to enact initiatives based upon the things they care about and it is the spin-offs from the community cohesion and reciprocity that results that, while difficult to measure, have the greatest impact on lives.

And so, to that end, our Parish Council has resolved to employ a Community Worker – initially for 20 hours a week for an exploratory year. 

We are presently recruiting and I will use this blog to share our experiences and learning over the next 12 months. Reporting and assisted by a sub-committee that I’ll be chairing, it is envisaged that the Worker will:

  • Map the incidence of community action across the Parish
  • Act as a catalyst connecting local connectors and activists 
  • (Offer) Support the Trustees and Committees of Ruspidge Memorial Hall/Welfare Trust and Soudley Village Hall 
  • Promote community use of playing fields and play facilities within the Parish
  • Help people associate and participate around activities that matter to them (including social, recreational, caring or sporting)
  • Promote take-up of the Parish Council’s Small Grants Programme
  • In association with the sub-committee, produce an options/feasibility report at month 9 of the initiative evaluating what is being learned and recommendations regarding subsequent action

Watch this space to find out what we learn.

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

A Rural Parish Initiative © Bob Rhodes 2017.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.


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