Living on a hill – a tribute to Vera O’Brien

Born at the Hospital for Mothers and Babies in Woolwich in 1924, Vera lived close by me, on Westcombe Hill.

When she died in early 2020, only four people could attend because of COVID restrictions. This weekend, a huge crowd gathered at St George’s Church, our local, to remember Vera – an extraordinary friend, neighbour, volunteer, fundraiser, jumble sale organiser, girl guide leader and great grandmother.

At this, we exchanged memories and here is one that came to me.

Perhaps it was her living so long on a hill, perhaps it was her going to church on a hill. Either way, one hill that we climbed together, up the very roof of the O2 to the pinnacle and back, was one Vera accomplished with seeming ease.

It was a shame that we hadn’t sponsored her to do it for Christian Aid, because this was a sporting achievement at her sprightly age to match the parachute jumps, mud wrestling or marathon runs of younger generations. We could have raised as much as an evening round she’d lead in May, knocking on local doors. Or even as much as an evening and a half.

It was December, and a cold, cold day. We were climbing to sing carols on the roof of the O2, the St George’s Choir, robed when we reached the top and with enough strong singers for the rest of us to join in, our voices lost in and melded with a wind-swept ensemble of carols high above the Peninsula. 

There was a photo to memorialise the occasion. The image was no doubt a short-lived, instagrammable moment for the marketing team of the giant property developers, with whom St George’s and allies across East Greenwich had tussled over time for a space for faith and prayer.

The image remains though. It is up on the walls of St George’s as you walk in, as a reminder. It is an image of Vera and her church friends. Indomitable. Timeless. Up for anything that could do some good. 

There was no hill in life that she could not climb – and see us hope to follow.

Voluntary or Co-operative? Comparing the national bodies, NCVO and Co-operatives UK

I have just finished reading a history of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) by Justin Davis Smith. I picked the book up in May when facilitating a strategy session at NCVO for voluntary sector leaders.

When I joined the charity Pilotlight in 2020, one of my first steps was for us to join NCVO as a member. I have to say it wasn’t an obvious step. NCVO itself was on its knees, with close to zero influence on government and deep question marks over its own integrity, after internal incidents of bullying and of racism.

But the voluntary sector needs an effective voice, and to help make that happen, you have to show up. For a membership body, times of crisis are also a test of whether people care enough and are committed enough for it to come through. Even if it takes time, there lies the hope of renewal. 

The same holds true for associations in other sectors. Having worked at one, Co-operatives UK, I am intrigued to compare the experience of the two organisations over time.

I have written before on what charities can learn from co-operatives and vice versa. This blog is on what we can learn about their national bodies.

The association of co-operatives is older, by fifty years. It was on Monday, May 31st, 1869, at 11am when Tom Hughes MP rose in his chair in the theatre of the Royal Society of Arts in London to inaugurate the Co-operative Congress. There a resolution was adopted “the time has come for closer union or confederation of the co-operative societies of this country for common purposes and for a propaganda for extending the co-operative system to agriculture and other districts where at present it is not in operation.”

What to call the new association? The great co-operator, George Jacob Holyoake had warned that “a long name is a social calamity. ‘The British Association for the Advancement of Science’ has eight words in it. Many of its best members have left it, worn out by the exertion in writing the name.” It took a few years for a name to evolve, the Co-operative Union. As with NCVO, the name would alter over the years to follow.

The association of voluntary action started life in 1919 as the National Council of Social Service. It had support from a number of national charitable bodies, but the practical catalyst was a bequest from Edward Birchall, active in voluntary service before the Great War and killed in the course of it.

For the co-operatives, restricted to consumer retail co-ops, despite the breadth of original ambition, the business model was straightforward. The members were successful local trading entities and they paid a subscription which covered the costs of the central body. From the same members also came the revenue for the two other linked and powerful federal bodies established to serve the sector, the Co-operative Retail Society and Co-operative Wholesale Society.

For voluntary action, the business model for a central body was no less of a challenge than for each of its members to find funds. As with its members, there were constant appeals and in time the challenge led NCVO towards some enterprising solutions, including revenue support from the work of the Charities Aid Foundation – as well as finance from time to time from the state, typically for running national programmes of action on the ills of the day.

The relationship with the state has been a complex one for the voluntary sector, with a moving boundary over time between voluntary and statutory action. From the start, the question of independence has been a cause for debate. There have been strident critiques of where NCVO has engaged with government programmes, such as around unemployment in the 1930s. But then at other times, the organisation is loud and proud in standing up against state policy, such as the lobbying over recent years around efforts to gag charities from lobbying and campaigning. 

You might think that the self-help ethos of the co-operative sector would stress independence from the state even more. But in fact, the relationship was more complex, as it was more partisan. For most of the twentieth century, Co-operatives UK was in effect formally and constitutionally aligned to the Labour Party through the mechanism of its own political party, the Co-operative Party, founded after the First World War in frustration with government restrictions on co-operative trade.

The character of the co-operative movement was working class and socialist, albeit with vocal support from others. NCVO in contrast could happily be characterised as establishment. Even so, there was an overlap. As Davis-Smith argues “several of the Council’s early champions and most influential thinkers, including Adams, Lindsay and Barker came from this liberal or left-leaning tradition.”

Both created space for the talents of outstanding women. Grace Hadow, for example, from 1920 inspired the most successful chapter of NCVO’s early years in the form of rural community action. In the years running up to the Second World War, the community councils that she championed had supported the building of 1,200 village halls, covering around one in every twelve villages in England.

Margaret Llewellyn Davies, from 1889, was a legendary and tireless General Secretary of the Co-operative Women’s Guild, perhaps the most extraordinary and influential ‘voluntary organisation’ of its day. The Co-operative Women’s Guild was a mass movement, voluntary in nature but conceived within the co-operative sector, supported by it and a voice and force for working class women, in terms of education, empowerment and advocacy.

The clear, leftist politics of the co-operative sector inevitably meant that its fate was caught up in the wider ideological battles of the twentieth century. The sector was a direct target for attack by fascists on the continent in the 1930s. In the wake of Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany, for example, co-op shops were firebombed. Hamburg had 163 co-op shops with their windows smashed. In 1933, stormtroopers were placed outside of co-op shops. All co-op ‘propaganda’ was banned. Nazi ‘führers’ were placed onto all executive committees. Between 1935 and 1941, there was a compulsory liquidation of the movement. Adolf Hitler was given a birthday gift of 1 million Reichsmarks of confiscated co-op funds. Co-operatives UK’s general secretary R. A. Palmer, my predecessor in role, was placed on Hitler’s death list if the UK was invaded.

I have not found the right data to give an exact comparison of the size of each sector, including in volunteer roles, such as on committees, around this time. But in formal economic terms, it appears that for a long time in the UK, the co-operative sector was far larger than the voluntary sector. In the 1950s, there were around 30,000 co-operative shops and 250 factories. By contrast, even noting ‘the growth of a salaried bureaucracy’ in a 1937 report, the think tank Political and Economic Planning cites Census figures of around 10,000 employees working in voluntary organisations.

Both, though drew from a rich and long culture of associational life. One estimate I found in writing my own book, A Short History of Co-operation and Mutuality, is that in the eighteenth century, there were a remarkable 25,000 clubs and societies meeting in the English-speaking world. These ranged from social clubs and arts societies through to debating clubs, book societies, alumni, freemasons, horticultural societies, music societies, sports clubs, professional associations, philanthropic and political societies, religious bodies, scientific and learning societies…

The subtitle that Justin Davis Smith, who is now the course director of the Charities Masters programme at the Centre for Charity Effectiveness at Bayes Business School, gives to his history of NCVO is “idealists and realists”. The same combination would ring true of co-operative action at the national level. The idealists saw in co-ops a way of organising society anew. The realists saw them as a practical way to meet needs. There are tensions as well as synergies in the mix of the two.

Idealism and realism came together from the start in the co-operative sector with a strong focus on education. Well before universal education, this helped to make the movement a genuine accelerator for working class talent. This included a recognition that running a co-op needed a distinctive set of skills. In contrast, it took a long time for the same focus on skills to arrive with the same emphasis at NCVO, with the establishment of a national training programme for staff in voluntary organisations only in 1997.

Ironically, by then, co-operative education had lost its own way – some retail societies even refused to appoint graduates as managers out of preference for talent from the shop floor. Poorly managed, poorly governed, one by one the weaker societies failed, using mergers not so much as a route to scale but as a way to muddle through.

The triumph of idealists and realists at NCVO as I read it, is in the proud track record that the organisation has had of incubating and advancing new voluntary sector bodies. The list of organisations that has been cradled by NCVO, some for very long periods of time, is astonishing. It includes Age UK, BOND, Charities Aid Foundation, Citizens Advice, CPRE, National Children’s Bureau, Neighbourhood Energy Action, Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Wales Council for Voluntary Action, Waste Watch and the Youth Hostels Association.

By contrast, both with NCVO and with some other national bodies such as Pellervo in Finland, which played a catalytic role in creating new co-operatives at least early on, Co-operatives UK appears passive and insular over time, as if defending co-operative space rather than enlarging it through fostering innovation.

But leading your members is not an easy formula and in both cases, the associations developed a love of Commissions as a way to look forward. Every few decades resource-hungry Commissions, chaired by the right big name, would be asked to chart ways forward for each sector. For the voluntary sector, this included the Wolfenden Commission, the Deakin Commission and the more recent Inquiry led by Julia Unwin. For the co-operative sector, it included the Gaitskell Commission, the Monks Report and the Myners Review.

At times, each association has been left behind by new practices and new radicals in the sector. The campaigning charities of Shelter and Child Poverty Action Group reinvented voluntary action in the 1960s, with NCVO struggling to keep up. The disabled persons movement looked to replace charity sector paternalism with participation. The worker co-ops formed in the 1970s, forerunners and pioneers of so much participatory self-management in the workplace today, also found no home and no recognition in the wider co-op sector for decades.

Each sector too struggles to keep up with a changing society. While both can claim a strong track record in recent years of leadership by women, when it comes to race and wider diversity, both sectors risk falling behind. Having fallen so short on this, NCVO has won support for its remedies and plans going forward.

And yet overall, by encouraging and nurturing voluntary and co-operative action over time, both associations have left a profound mark on the world. As Raymond Williams argued, the ways that so-called ordinary people have had of getting together to make a difference are cultural achievements, to be taken as seriously as cultural products as paintings, plays and books.

The difference that has been made over time to individuals and communities through voluntary and co-operative action is incalculable. As Julia Unwin CBE puts it, ever eloquently, “reading this excellent history, I was struck time and again by the continued power of civil society to challenge and disrupt other sources of power, to mobilise money and effort to solve major social problems.”

There is not yet a history of Co-operatives UK over its full 150 years (I think 100 was the last one) to put alongside my copy of ‘100 Years of NCVO and Voluntary Action’ by Justin Davis Smith. It would not be a best seller. But there is value in setting the challenges that currently face both sectors in a historical context.

As Sarah Vibert, the energetic and collaborative new CEO of NCVO, puts it to me – “what will be the next chapter that we can write?”


Hazel Henderson, a world-renowned futurist and new economist has died at the age of 89 years old.

A prolific writer, Hazel authored nine books and hundreds of articles leading to what is now known as sustainability and growing the “green” economy. Alongside pioneering work on the social use of technology, she was an early and leading advocate of the shift to renewable energy, outlined in her 1981 book, for example, The Politics of the Solar Age.

If ever anyone was able to bring the future forward, it was Hazel. To call herself a futurist suggested that she inhabited the future, whereas she was energetically and insistently always present too, with columns and opinions and writing shaped to the contours of now while always also looking forward too. I am so very grateful for her enormous contribution to new economic thought and practice, her generosity of engagement and her tireless inspiration.

I remember early on, when I was CEO of the UK based New Economics Foundation, pressing against the growth orthodoxy of the day, she would encourage me by repeating her view that ‘you don’t argue with economists… you hire economists’.

She was encouraging of others in the field and as an example this showed up so often in the references to her cake and icing model of wealth – a sustainable food metaphor before, thanks to Kate Raworth, we discovered the donut.

I was lucky to be able to commission Hazel to write what turned into one of her most powerful short books, Beyond Globalisation. In this, she ended with a reference to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that if ever humanity discovered the true power of love, it would be as profound a change in our social condition as the discovery of fire.

Hazel, here we were always proud of your Bristol roots, always inspired by your engagement and will, now that you have rest, always be grateful for your full, rich and generous life.

What can charities teach civil servants?

A new report out from Pro Bono Economics, as part of their current Law Family Commission, points to the gaps that exist between the world of charity and the world of policy and decision-making in the UK. Of the groups that the research looks at, civil servants were the least likely to have contact with charities. While one in three has volunteered their time over the last twelve months and one in ten has been a trustee, positive figures, close to half of civil servants (45%) have had no active engagement with charities. So what gets missed out if our public sector is not engaging with the public in this way?

The key gap is better government. In terms of crossing boundaries, the two most important contributions of charities, as seen by civil servants, MPs and councillors, are ‘raising awareness about important issues affecting citizens’ and ‘bringing together communities to work on issues that affect them’. In short, where decisions are made with input from charities, they are more likely to reflect social needs and more likely to lead to social improvement.

An example of a gap in understanding, the authors argue, is the field of skills and training. Charities provide as much training as local authorities, but only a minority of civil servants (44%) see an important role for the voluntary sector in supporting the workforce. At the same time, the report also argues that charities do not tend to have a good understanding of policy and government, so bridging the gap will take work on both sides.

In terms of recommendations, the authors would like to see a civil society liaison post at a senior level in every department. One of the ironic elements of the research was that it suggested that civil servants tended to think that their own department was significantly better at this than other departments – and yet of course they could not all be right.

Our work is primarily with individuals and businesses from the private and voluntary sector, but we have good experience of running programmes with civil servants as a form of leadership development for them, as well of course as a benefit to the frontline charities that we partner. Broadly, the benefits are in learning skills, such as ones of influence, curating stakeholders, achieving impact, that the charity sector excels at.

The authors also point to the work of Pilotlight, among others, as one of the “excellent examples which already exist across the civil service…to match their skills with charities which need them.” The role of the Whitehall Industry Group on secondments is also highlighted.

We are working with the Glasgow Health and Social Care Partnership for example. One Pilotlighter involved has commented that:

What Pilotlight offers is an amazing opportunity for learning and developing alongside sharing your own skills and knowledge. The complexity of the NHS and Health and Social Care Partnerships can be mystifying to those of us who work in it at times, so being able to unpick that for others to some degree, and help them see where we can work better together, feels incredibly important at this point in time. I had a wonderful experience, and would happily recommend it to anyone.”

The charities we are working with are themselves sources of inspiration in terms of bringing lived experience to bear in the world of policy. Few do this better than the Pollok based charity The Village Story Telling Centre, one of our partner charities involved, which believes that “everyone has a story worth hearing, yet nobody’s is written in stone.”

From previous work with the Ministry for Justice, we have been told that “the Pilotlight model offers a very very rich learning environment for our leaders.” But there is one intriguing difference we saw with this, compared to our work with partner businesses.

Whereas HR Directors in business tell us that they are motivated in part by a desire to build authenticity in their leaders, those in the public sector feel that civil servants “already have that authenticity working through them.’  For them, it is about engaging with these issues at a more frontline level where they can learn how to make a difference in practice.

The difference in impact felt working with a Pilotlight charity compared to their day jobs is perhaps usefully illustrated in a triangle of charitable activity used by Caroline Fiennes in her book, ‘It ain’t what you give it’s the way that you give it’.  In their day jobs, civil servants were working lower down the triangle where work is more distant from the beneficiary; through Pilotlight, they were typically working with service delivery/frontline charities towards the top of the triangle whose work was closer to the beneficiary and where impact could be more immediately and tangibly felt.

A world in which there is better learning across sectors, more skills sharing and more of an impact in terms of a focus on the voice and needs of people in communities affected by the decisions of decision-makers has to be one worth exploring.

We will all learn faster and better if we do.

You heard it here first… the next charity scandal

In a world of inspiring frontline charities and extraordinary volunteers, we are having to talk again about… Kids Company.

I can’t guess when the next ‘charity scandal’ will hit, but it seems to me that in between we ought to have more of a grown up discussion about risk.

If Kids Company was a risky venture, which no one seems to dispute, one reason was that it was trying to tackle a rising toll of risks to children and to society. Many charities do this and we should celebrate what they do as loud and proudly as we do risk takers in enterprise and investment. Good governance is critical, yes, but we should also accept failure, accept that in a world of risk charities will try things and some will fail.

With Kids Company, what we have had are years of to and fro on whether the individuals in charge at the charity acted appropriately or not. Some is well founded, some is on the basis of hindsight and sometimes it strays into fantasy, such as, for me, the recent suggestion from the regulator that if charities grow their income and expenditure, they can simultaneously grow their reserves. That looks good on paper, but is very tough in practice, because there are rarely the margins or surplus to allow this in a non-profit context.

Why do we expect so much of charities, when the challenges that they are responding to are often growing in scale? There is some research that suggests that people who give to charity want to believe that their money is put to good use, so that they are less likely to question the effectiveness of charities. Or some charities themselves overclaim what can be done with a donation, in order to raise money. Either way, we can end up with inflated expectations.

The charity sector should be valued for how it reduces risks to society and judged by how effectively overall it does this. If so, then seeing some charities close could be a signal of the health of the wider sector and not one of its failing.

You heard it here first. It may seem unlikely, but the next charity scandal could be that, at a time when we most need them to take risks… no charities fail.

Economic democracy – why some ideas take centuries to progress

It is a simple enough idea. Just as the governance of cities and nations has shifted from systems of inherited control to systems of democratic accountability, so we could move over time to systems of economic democracy.

I have written a blog for the democracy charity Involve as part of its series on the future of democracy, under the simple title of ‘one worker, one vote’.

Quotation - An emerging culture across society of participation and openness...

If so, if part of future democracy, it will have taken a long time – perhaps the longest running social change campaign I have ever been involved in.

We have seen co-operative models over time with stakeholder ownership and the encouragement of a healthy growth of employee ownership alongside this in more recent years. These are aligned with an idea which was, a century ago, widely canvassed. The phrase ‘Workers’ Control of Industry’ was coined in the years leading up to the First World War. But this too drew on a longer history, which in the UK included attempts to run union shops and Exchange Bazaars in the century before.

In 1912, the pamphlet The Miners’ Next Step set out options for future action by miners in South Wales and concluded with a vision of future society in which “every industry thoroughly organised, in the first place, to fight, to gain control of, and then to administer, that industry.”

The trade union activist and leader Tom Mann, who himself started working in mines at the age of ten, was a key advocate. He defined what he called syndicalism in the following terms: “a condition of society where industry will be controlled by those engaged therein, on the basis of free societies; these co-operate for the production of all requirements of life in the most efficient manner, and the distribution of the same, with truest equity.”

For him, economic democracy would not just complement political democracy, but even in time overtake it, removing the need for state action to act as a counterweight and a corrective to the markets that generate inequality.

For James Connolly, the Irish republican and trade union leader, the purpose was to build an “an industrial republic.”

You can see why this vision might take time to realise – it is a call for a new economy, based on a far more equitable and distributed pattern of ownership. And yet, looking forward, this is exactly what is still needed – a new economy in which we can all participate, to meet our key needs and to create value within the constraints of our biosphere.

Arguably, many of the experiments we see in participatory practice, sustainable business and social enterprise today are pathfinders for something like this tomorrow.

If so, the case for economic democracy has never been more compelling… or more hopeful.

Charities are not just for Christmas

Christmas is a time for charity and who can doubt the need for it right now? Whether it is more homelessness as the cold weather comes, more domestic violence as COVID keeps people at home or more loneliness for people who are elderly, there are such inspiring charities and social enterprises who are working to support vulnerable people in need – and to challenge the conditions that put them there.

So, whatever the season means to you, of one faith or of none, charity does appear to talk to us all. We can all learning anew that in giving to others, we discover that we gain ourselves.

The fact that so many cards are sent, to raise funds for charities, so many Christmas appeals are made by newspapers – to help create some good news – is heart-warming.

In Sefton, the Venus Centre is collecting presents from local businesses for children who would miss out otherwise. In Smethwick, the Dorothy Parkes Centre is doing the same.

Small charities like this are engines of social participation and of wider voices. I recall Howard Glennister of the LSE saying that a distinctive advantage of charities is our ambiguity – that people who are service users become volunteers and trustees, that volunteers become staff and vice-versa.

I have had the privilege this year of seeing our contact with both Venus and Dorothy Parkes and with over a hundred and thirty or so more charities.

What a job I have. Pilotlight operates as a charity itself with a distinctive role, to allow people to give their skills and not just their money to good causes – working in the process with wonderful individuals, charities and businesses. My thanks to all of you, our trustees and our partners for your engagement over 2021.

I do see the challenges and scourges that communities face. I also see the stress and stretch that charity staff and volunteers experience. But, in their response, I also see the true potential of our society to be more inclusive.

We help people do more for their world. I sometimes think that if we could bottle hope, we could sell it on every corner.

Charities though are not just for Christmas.

We are here all year round. If we could just spill the goodwill of the seasonal break over 2022, the year ahead, then we would genuinely be creating new constituencies for social justice and new waves of the hope that is in need.

Tomorrow’s communities

Two ideas that have taken very different turns over the last forty years are the nation and the community. Nationalism has re-emerged as a potent force across Europe, quite a reverse from the post-war understanding of the need to limit nation states in order to keep the peace. Community, however, has been on the wane.

An infrastructure for and an understanding of community development that had been commonplace before has been allowed to erode. It is true that the call of localism has been heard over all that time, on grounds of sustainability and on grounds of participation and democracy. But this call can also be seen a retreating, rallying cry against more central forms of political and economic power and organisation – a process that Karl Polanyi, author of ‘The Great Transformation’ would call a ‘double movement’.

And yet even so, over that time there have also been extraordinary changes and examples of success for exactly the forms of community development that were being pushed to the margin.

This is the theme of a new book that I have contributed to, Tomorrow’s Communities – published by Policy Press and edited by Henry Tam – along with a range of distinguished practitioners and academics in the field.

In the opening chapter that I have co-written with my longtime friend and collaborator Pat Conaty, we explore the field of community economic development – the idea that local people can shape their own economic futures through their own endeavours.

The Western Isles in Scotland are an outstanding example. The Highlands and Islands Development Board under the distinguished economist Sir Kenneth Alexander after 1976 was the first UK state body to recognise the relevance of the community led approach, focusing on the needs of the Hebrides (Na h-Eileanan a-Staigh and Na h-Eileanan an Iar).

Conventional thinking had been that the islands were on the periphery of the periphery, distanced both from mainland Scotland and from wider Europe, so that what was needed was to connect up the island economies with a wider national economic agenda – in short, to reduce the pace of falling behind. Alexander saw it differently. He decentralised development support and planning and gave backing to community initiatives, including enterprises for service provision and cultural events and programmesdesigned to give confidence and identity to a region long seen as on the fringe.

Over time, the population outflow from the islands was stemmed and new initiatives gave life to the local economy, from the University of the Highlands & Islands through to community enterprises such as Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise Company. Community owned land has become commonplace, with pioneers such as the islanders of Eigg following the example of the Assynt crofters of northwest Sutherland who, in 1993, had jointly purchased the North Lochinver Estate. The Isle of Eigg was purchased by the community from a private landowner in 1997. I remember talking at an event to raise the capital, organised by the inspiring Alastair Macintosh.

Before this, the islanders had little say in how the island was run, but after the purchase, efforts were made to attract newcomers, to improve the housing stock, to encourage enterprise and to invest in renewable energy, for security of supply, lower costs and energy efficiency.

Compared to a decrease in the Scottish islands’ population over the ten years to 2001, the number of islanders grew by 4% between 2001 and 2011. Since then (the time of the ten-year Scottish Census), evidence points to further population growth and the reason, according to one workshop set up to explore this in 2019 is a policy framework that is “founded on community ownership of the development process.”

Today, half the land mass across the Western Isles is now under the control of residents – and some three quarters of people live on community owned tracts, where they have a say in the running of the estate. More widely across Scotland, there has been a tenfold increase in community groups owning assets over the last decade.

This has been helped by a progressive policy environment in the form of Community Right to Buy legislation and financial support through the Scottish Land Fund. Even so, of the 209,810 hectares of land in total across Scotland that is now in community ownership, the largest proportion of this land (70%) is located in the Western Isles.

More widely, Scotland’s Highlands and Islands, which are home to less than 10% of the country’s population, account for 22% of its social enterprises. Uist and Lewis were recognised earlier this year by Social Enterprise Scotland as among the most successful in the country.

A second example of the transformation that community development can bring is the Meadow Well estate in Tyneside. In the book, Pat and I write about the experiences of the area in the 1980s and the inspiring work of the community development pioneer Tony Gibson.

More recently, Pilotlight has been working to support the community organisation, the charity Meadow Well Connected, which emerged from those struggles and under the leadership of Mandi Cresswell and the trustees, provides a range of key services, from a local cafe through to a joinery workshop, specialist alcohol support and an after-school club to a bustling community.

The team at Meadow Well Connected

You can see a drone camera flight over the area on the website of Meadow Well Connected. It captures the area, the building but while you have a sense of the whole area from it and a sense of its identity, the people that make a difference, that make it a community, are hard to distinguish.

Tomorrow’s Communities is a great collection of stories, data and evidence on the power of these people. It demonstrates that we do know how to harness such community action – it is both a science with knowledge and expertise and an art that requires patience and participation. The ‘community economies’ that result are diverse, for sure. But arguably such diversity is an asset in the post-pandemic and climate stressed times ahead.

Over time, community development remains one of the most effective and sustainable ways to improve lives and promote well-being.

We need to reassert the case for tomorrow’s communities.

Communities that are more sustainable fared better over the pandemic

One of the most profound thinkers on community development is John Turner, now retired on the South coast of England, whose work on housing in Latin America and India turned conventional wisdom on its head.

“What they thought was the solution (slum clearance) turned out to be the problem” he told me many years ago “and what they thought was the problem (informal settlements) turned out to be the solution.

I was reminded of John’s words when chairing a session earlier this Summer for researchers on rural development across the world, Regions in Recovery Global e-festival organised by the Regional Studies Association.

For years, rural areas have been seen as a problem in terms of economic development. Policy at national and European levels characterise rural areas as ‘peripheral’ regions that are backward and needing to catch up with the centre. Across the OECD, rural regions account for 80% of the land mass and are home to 30% of the population. The challenges are characterised as scattered people, population decline, poor access, distance from markets and low diversity.

But how have these peripheral areas fared under COVID-19?

A team of researchers across a range of European countries, including Scotland, Ireland, Finland, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada came together to examine this, funded by the (European) Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme. Appropriately, many of the researchers were bringing their own lived experience to bear and the research was coordinated from the Outer Hebrides by CoDel, Community Development Lens. 

The research findings were that rural areas were both advanced in terms of their sustainability, but also organised and effective in terms of responding to challenges, with more positive health and economic outcomes.

  • Cohesive communities and responsive local governance found local solutions, for example to implement test and trace systems effectively, to shut down community transmission swiftly and to vaccinate local populations rapidly. 
  • There had been extensive community engagement and participation, volunteering and generosity expressed in practical action to help the most vulnerable.
  • Over half of the entrepreneurs surveyed, consider that COVID-19 brought about new business opportunities.

The presenters of the research included Mads Randbøll Wolff who has been a leader in rural sustainable development, new Nordic food and bioeconomy action in Denmark and Liam Glynn, Professor of General Practice, School of Medicine, University of Limerick. Liam helped to lead the inspiring community campaign, ‘no doctor, no village’ and is Chair of the organising committee for the next World Rural Health Conference in June 2022.

As a practising GP alongside his academic research, Liam concluded that “the resilience shown by rural and remote communities during Covid-19 has been a testament to the inherent engagement, cohesiveness and flexibility of these communities.  The pandemic has generated a renewed vigour in re-imagining life on the periphery as a very attractive place for people and businesses to come, work and live.”

Theona Morrison of CoDel suggested that the the social and economic infrastructure of voluntary organisations, social and community enterprises have proved critical for island and rural communities during Covid. And her colleague Thomas Fisher, stressed that “this builds on 40 years of practice among island communities such as Uist in delivering to community needs, building community wealth, and developing our islands as attractive places to live and work.”

This includes efforts around culture and participation, such as this wonderful poster coming out of a Scottish Rural Parliament.

Perhaps in recognition of this, earlier this year, Uist and Lewis were named as Social Enterprise Place award winners by Social Enterprise Scotland. As Thomas says “at last our island communities are being more fully recognised for their dynamism, enterprise and resilience.” Things are starting to change.

Similarly Patrick Krouse, CEO of the Scottish Crofting Federation commented in the research that “I really do believe that crofting, and rural and island, are coming into their own. I have noticed that policy makers are looking at crofting a lot more as a way forward, rather than an anachronism, as they used to.”

At the heart of this is a recognition that many rural communities are at the forefront of the shift towards a more sustainable economy, using natural resources with care, encouraging a diverse micro-enterprise base and recognising the scope for community action and ownership.

Covid-19 has also shifted how people view the attractiveness of rural living. There are signs of people leaving cities and buying properties in rural areas and islands. Ironically, of course, this in turn can lead to tensions around housing, with some concerns of a new ‘economic clearance’ if local people are priced out and forced out of their own communities.

As John Turner might conclude, with a wry smile, the problem has again become the solution. The rural, the sustainable, has become the place to watch.

What did you do during the pandemic? The inspiring story of one food bank in Liverpool

As the next faltering step passes on the roadmap to a life after pandemic, we can start to imagine the question “what did you do during the pandemic?”

Kevin Peacock has an answer and it is an extraordinary one. He is CEO of St. Andrews Community Network, a charity caught up in the heart of action around the COVID-19 pandemic and one that at Pilotlight we have been working to support, indeed throughout the pandemic.


Kevin describes how this started on a date etched in his memory – Saturday March 14th 2020. “Those days are etched in our brains now as important to us, the early days of the pandemic. We would have been getting ready to collect food at home games for either Liverpool and Everton around twenty five per cent of the food we collect came from games at the two clubs. Instead, football was cancelled under government orders and we were meeting to discuss that as we wouldn’t be able to collect food in the same way.”

“Our local MP had been in a parliamentary briefing. He advised that the restrictions wouldn’t be short term, wouldn’t be over quickly, so we needed a plan. So that morning, we sat down and we made a plan.”

St. Andrews Community Network is a small charity which originates from a church project. It coordinates North Liverpool Food Bank, connected to the national Trussell Trust, which is a network of eleven churches and community organisations delivering food, with around 400 agencies distributing vouchers that refer people into the food bank. The charity also provides financial and debt advice, regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. At the start of the pandemic, they had around 200 people help out as volunteers.

“The plan that we made on that same Saturday” says Kevin “and evolved as we went through was to switch our donations base as we knew that people wouldn’t be going to supermarkets, to be able to drop off at our door or collect at football matches. So, working with our friends at Fans Supporting Foodbanks, we published instead options for people to give to us financially. By the end of that first Saturday, we had raised £8,000. People were incredibly generous. Over the twelve months, we have raised £180,000, just by inviting people to give what they would normally have given in food.”

“We also recognised that our normal distribution systems wouldn’t work in the pandemic. People would normally come to the food bank, sit and have a cup of tea, gather their food and take it away in person. So we moved to an online voucher issuing system, we pre-packed all our food, commandeered some community centres and put our volunteers to work to do this. We put out a call for help in April and by the end of the month, we had another two hundred people to add to our midst.”

“We also contacted all of the people we were supporting with money advice. In general, things were quieter for them, because they couldn’t see face to face advisors and equally creditors couldn’t chase them in person for repayment. We still needed to make sure that we were contacting people.”

The big change for Kevin and the team was that the charity became a core part of the emergency response in the city. To begin with, the city council and other partners struggled to adapt, to respond even as people were short of food and queueing in supermarkets. Kevin was able to say that the charity had been doing this for years. And he made a simple offer “how can we help?” Some of the help was about clear thinking – who needs food, why do they need food and how do we get to them. And some was very practical help. The charity had foodstocks, vans, volunteers. It could do what was needed in terms of legwork on the ground.

“Because we acted with generosity in those early days”, says Kevin, “We have adopted a role which was unexpected for us, which is much more strategic.” Kevin has been on the City Council’s COVID Recovery Group and now chairs a Food Insecurity group, to make sure that what happen to people without food in those early stages doesn’t happen again.

One of the results was a rapid growth in the charity itself as it stepped up its services in collaboration with others in the city – growth in demand, services and donations.

“We have grown from an organisation that would ordinarily normally turn over £300,000 to just over one million this year, so huge financial growth. We have added seven staff over the period of the year, four since January to focus on debt advice and benefits advice post COVID recovery.”

In this context, the support from Pilotlight was perfectly weighted. “The thing that I really valued about our Pilotlight involvement over this period was focusing on mission. So, yes OK grow, but don’t become distracted by the things you weren’t there to do originally and focus on the people you were there to serve. Growing and staying focused on mission is quite a challenge, but we have done it.”

Cutting across all of Kevin’s story is incredible staff and volunteer dedication. “We very early on stated that COVID safety trumped everything – we gave people the choice to opt in or opt out. By and large most people opted to stay involved. This kind of empowerment and choice really stood us in good stead through the pandemic. Many of our people, staff in particular, have worked outside of job descriptions for an extended period of time in order to make happen what we needed to make happen.”

An example is one of the charity’s debt advisers, who is a retired fireman. Having done some health and safety training, he quickly became a guru at COVID safety, to the extent that the materials that he wrote around risk assessments became adopted by Public Health Liverpool as best practice for other to adopt. “We were acting beyond our authority” explains Kevin “but based on something that was quite instinctive and reactive for us”.

The way that staff and volunteers acted was no accident. “We already had a culture of responsibility” says Kevin. Throughout the process, the charity ran on open, participatory lines, giving responsibility to staff and asking questions like ‘what do you think?’ and ‘how are we going to deal with this?’. This approach allowed staff and volunteers to share their concerns and worries as well as generating mature conversations around how to get things done rapidly at a time of risk and uncertainty.

In return, Kevin and the trustees focused in on the little things that make a difference in terms of people’s well-being. “We have periodically offered £50 wellbeing pick me ups, no questions asked” comments Kevin. One staff member bought garden furniture, another a painting by numbers kit. It was what was needed.  Staff went round to the house of a staff member had been furloughed, to leave a birthday cake on his doorstep. “He had felt bad about being on furlough as he had to stay indoors,” said Kevin. “We made him feel part of the team and he really valued that.”

Generosity is a value that Kevin stresses. “Whenever we have come up with an idea, or had a plan, we have shared it with others. We have not kept it to ourselves. Our risk assessments for example have been used by multiple charities across the city. With our food stocks, we were sharing and passing food between people, genuinely working in partnership with others, giving away where needed because we realised that to come through this pandemic, we needed a joint and collaborative approach. We were really generous all the way through and I am really proud of that” he concludes.

“One of the reflections from our Pilotlighters which I really valued” he continued “is that we could be agile in a way that other organisations couldn’t easily be. I could get people together to say OK what are we going to do about this and then things would happen.” This was being clear as a leader, but not being dictatorial, instead finding ways to talk things through, to consult and then to get to decisions and move to take action at speed and as a team.

That first weekend in March 2020 set the tone. “We met on a Saturday morning, set a funding platform set up and had donations in by 7pm in the evening.”

What did Kevin and his colleagues and neighbours in the St. Andrews Community Network do during the pandemic? They provided lifeline services to people in Liverpool at a time of extreme vulnerability. And they did so at the right speed, acting as fast as the crisis itself was unfolding.