It has been three and half years since Third Sector first met the four community organisers working in the Barton Hill area of Bristol. They had been taken on by Barton Hill Settlement, a community development organisation in east Bristol, as part of a flagship government scheme to encourage people living in deprived areas to tackle local problems by setting up action groups and organising events.
Of the first four trainees, only Steve Crozier, a part-time community organiser, is currently working at Barton Hill. But another, full-time community organiser, Chris Jenner, has also been recruited.
Over the past five years the government has invested more than £25m in the community organisers programme as part of the big society initiative. The primary role of the organisers has been to listen to the concerns of local residents and encourage them to seek solutions.
Joanna Holmes, chief executive of Barton Hill Settlement and chair of the community membership body Locality, says the programme has made a difference to the area, which consists mainly of social housing and has a large migrant community.
"Having people in post whose job it is to go out and listen to the people we serve is fundamental," Holmes says. "The organisers have become priceless to us."
But she concedes that it has taken some time for the benefits of the programme to become evident. "We have hosted the community organisers for about three years, and it takes that long to start having an impact on people," she says. "The issues that residents raise tend to be the more obvious things when you first talk to them, but as you build more long-term relationships you get more into the problems people are really concerned about."
Holmes believes the conversations the community organisers have had with local people have been particularly useful in revealing the financial problems faced by residents and unearthing issues such as zero-hours employment contracts.
She says: "Many people living in the Barton Hill area are very proud and private about such matters. As a result of our programme, however, we started a scheme that involved talking to people about their finance issues, which has led to people becoming more open about their problems."
As part of the government programme, paid community organisers are expected to recruit volunteers to help support others to take action. Holmes says that this aspect of the programme proved challenging at first. She says: "We found in some communities that the level of commitment wasn't understood, but we gradually managed to get 25 people involved. However, we discovered that the volunteers themselves wanted a structured programme, so we secured some funding to deliver to them a version of the training programme for community organisers."
Holmes says that about 12 volunteers have now completed that course.
Crozier estimates that he has listened to about 1,000 people in the area in the past three years. From those initial conversations, about 50 people have gone on to set up projects or take other forms of voluntary action. One particularly successful scheme was set up by local people in order to keep children busy during the school holidays.
Crozier has also been impressed with how local people, often from different cultural backgrounds, have been willing to come together to mount campaigns with his support. For example, during his time with residents in one council tower block it became apparent that there was a problem with the availability of communal washing machines. The residents were having to share two machines between 86 households, which was leading to conflict. After the residents mounted a collective campaign, the council agreed to install an additional machine.
"We brought together people who did not want to come together at first and helped them to take action – for me, that has been one of the proudest moments in this position. There are lots of problems in our communities, but the people in them have a lot more sense than they are given credit for."