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Jun 28

After a crisis like Grenfell, it’s community organisations that hold things together

Public sector cuts, Social action

Tower block fire in London

The Grenfell Tower fire was utterly devastating, and felt all too familiar after the recent terror attacks.

But it also suggested something new. In the aftermath we saw the same massive mobilisation of volunteers, the same overwhelming generosity of donations, the same staunch deployment of community resources, and the incredible bravery and determination of the emergency services.

What was different was the sense that the community stepped up in a vacuum. Kensington and Chelsea council has faced huge criticism for the paucity of its reaction and has now been relieved of responsibility. The new government, still in flux following the surprise general election result, was slow to provide clear leadership, with Theresa May admitting initial support for families was “not good enough”.

In the meantime while the debate about the government response carried on, community organisations had already sprung into action.

Locality member, The Westway Trust has been one of the organisations at the centre of relief, support and crisis management. In normal times, they provide a range of local services and support the regeneration of the local area. Over the past weeks, they have been providing shelter and support to the hundreds of individuals and families who have been displaced in the most terrifying of circumstances.

Organisations like Westway Trust are not funded to do this, and nobody in charge initially asked them to do this. They stepped in because that is what community organisations do, in countless situations, ranging from fires, floods, riots, terror attacks and more. These local organisations are what enable local people to get the support they need.

Community organisations are often in the front line of tackling crises, and providing the long lasting support once media attention has moved on. We saw the same thing on Boxing Day 2015, when Hebden Bridge Town Hall became the town’s flood support centre, coordinating thousands of volunteers to provide emergency assistance. As the Director of Hebden Bridge Community Association explained:

“We opened the doors to the Town Hall on 27 December so that the local community could come somewhere dry and have a hot drink. And then it began. People came to help. The help was unconditional; they just needed to do something.

“Within four hours of opening we were a hub for cleaning items, a food bank, a place for people to fill out grant applications, a mobile phone charging point, free WiFi provider and giving out free hot food and drinks.”

Local north Kensington residents were able to respond to the Grenfell fire in such an inspiring way and give hope and support in the immediate aftermath because they had community organisations to channel their donations, their offers to volunteer and their messages of hope directly to the local community. Westway and all the other local groups involved in the relief effort were not shipped in from outside, they were already embedded in the community. And they’ll be there long after the crisis response teams move on.

While the media attention on Grenfell dies down and we absorb the lessons around fire safety, deregulation and privatisation to ensure that such a monumental tragedy is never allowed to happen again, there is something else we can learn: it’s community organisations that are the backbone of strong communities. Not just in a crisis, but every day.

So now more than ever, we need to invest in our local community organisations that make our communities resilient. Communities are under pressure everywhere and the power and resilience they have shown over recent weeks is inspirational, even in the most testing of circumstances.

We cannot afford to take the work of communities for granted. Local people, groups and organisations need to be listened to and have more power over what happens in their local area. And they need decent funding to continue to provide valuable services, and run important local facilities and buildings.

We need to do everything in our power to ensure that our community infrastructure is as strong as possible – to strengthen local people’s voices to help prevent such tragedies happening in the first place. And ensure that when they do, we have strong community organisations to lead the response.

4 comments

  1. Naomi Martin

    Posted 29/06/17 at 11:10 am  |  Permalink

    As a London Locality member, I am wondering whether we can have a think and do tank for solving London’s housing crisis? I’d be happy to contribute my brain power to this, such as it is!

  2. Bob Arnott

    Posted 29/06/17 at 3:58 pm  |  Permalink

    Tony Armstrong is spot on regarding the value of community organisations in times of crisis,but I am concerned that the voluntary sector is being increasingly looked on by local authorities as a reserve army of labour since many public services have been lost due to cuts. With threats of closure to services such as libraries and youth clubs many Councils are encouraging voluntary groups to take them over and I would advise them,after looking into some of the contacts offered,to get good legal advice and be very careful what they are taking on.

  3. Valerie Holden

    Posted 02/07/17 at 3:34 pm  |  Permalink

    Important and demonstrated time and again is that community groups have the bravery, knowledge and flexibility to identify the true needs and find the best, people-centric solutions.

  4. John Blackmore

    Posted 03/07/17 at 11:43 am  |  Permalink

    This is a really key point Tony and needs to be highlighted prominently in the formal review. Grants to community organisations have been cut to almost nothing, major organisations from private and other sectors are securing major public service contracts and then disappear from the area when their contracts end– and often at the expense of local organisations -Yet the organisations (and local people) that step forward in times of community crisis are the grass roots ones which have a commitment to the local community but which are sadly under great threat as a result of austerity and cuts in funding and central and local government policies. . We lose them at our peril.

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