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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Laird

COVID-19 highlights the importance of community ‘bridges’

Updated: Mar 17, 2021

MV’s Andrew’s Laird and Chris Wright, chief executive of Catch22, argues that community bridge organisations are a vital part of supporting local areas to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. A version of this article was originally published in the MJ on 19th November 2020.

Even before the pandemic, the welfare model that grew out of the 1945 post war settlement was struggling to deal with the social and economic complexities of modern poverty in Britain. Outcomes for some of our most marginalised and disadvantaged people and communities have been historically poor and will now be worse following COVID-19

It is not all bad news. In some local authority areas, the pre-existing close connection between the public sector and communities has been a real plus and has enabled a rapid and flexible response. In other areas, the gulf between the public sector and local communities has been painfully exposed, leading to a sluggish response and frustration on all sides.

In many places, that connection or ‘bridge’ between the public sector and communities has been largely provided by a charity or social enterprise partner who is delivering services on behalf of the council or the local NHS trust. It varies from place to place, but these organisations deliver a wide variety of services including youth support, public health, adult social care or even community library services.

The critical factor is that these ‘community bridge’ organisations have a close connection to the public sector organisations they are commissioned by and are also closely embedded in the communities they serve. They will have a very clear social mission that extends beyond what they are directly commissioned to do. They will use their contract surplus or other funding streams, such as donations, to further pursue their social purpose and serve their community. The presence of organisations like this gives a huge boost to an area’s resilience and ability to respond to a crisis.

Charities and social enterprises are able and motivated to do things which are difficult to achieve through an in-house public sector model or through a traditional outsourced private sector model. We don’t think we are breaking any taboos by saying that in the public sector it can often be difficult to do things quickly – and there can be restrictions on how far ‘outside the box’ staff can look for solutions. And within the traditional private sector the motivation to go above and beyond a contractual arrangement is often not there. Both Mutual Ventures, through the support they provide to councils to develop new service commissioning and delivery models, and Catch22, through the services they provide directly, have a strong appreciation of this.

As an example of how this can work in practice, The Hive provides a free health and wellbeing service that supports all young people aged 16 to 24 in Camden, run by Catch22. It is unique in its approach of accepting ‘walk-ins’ (no appointments are required), supporting young people up to the age of 24 (when many statutory services stop at 18) and tackling the stigma around mental health through a blended approach of clinical and non-clinical interventions. The Hive is run in close partnership with The Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust, The Tavistock and Portman NHS, Foundation Trust, The Anna Freud Centre, The Brandon Centre and The Winch – and is shaped by the input of the young people using the service. Adult and child mental health professionals work together and there are high levels of trust between all areas of service delivery, meaning the service can be flexible and agile in its approach. The Hive is highlighted as an example of best practice in the NHS Long Term Plan and more than 4,000 young people have benefitted from the service over the last five years.

Derby and Derbyshire Cares is a Catch22 service focused on protecting young people from exploitation and is jointly commissioned by the two councils as well as the Police and Crime Commissioner. COVID-19 restrictions have forced the service to be more innovative and creative, moving to a mixture of virtual and face to face support for our service users and staff team. The Catch22 team were able to react quickly and make these changes.

These are both excellent examples of community-based services delivered by a ‘community bridge’ organisation in close partnership with public sector commissioners. They have been co-designed with the people who use them and are constantly adapted to meet need. The right amount of flexibility is built into the partnership arrangement to not only deal with the variances of normal service delivery but also the once in a generation disruption that COVID-19 has caused.

Forward thinking councils are investing time now in thinking strategically about the future shape of their services. Local leaders want to put some structure around the much-improved connection between public services and communities that we have seen during the response to COVID-19. Without focused thinking to agree a plan, followed up by the implementation of a clear action plan, people and organisations will drift back to how they have traditionally done things.

As councils start to plan their recovery from COVID-19, there is a hard-earned opportunity to learn the lessons, review strategic plans, and build those connections with communities through ‘community bridge’ organisations. This will not only enhance resilience and responsiveness should there be another crisis – but it is also an excellent way to connect with communities and deliver services in a co-operative way in normal times.


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