Overcoming isolation with collaboration in North Somerset

Third Sector reporter Rebecca Cooney returns to the area where she grew up to look at how local voluntary organisations are faring

Weston-super-Mare
Weston-super-Mare

Living in North Somerset without a car is, frankly, a pain. The buses trundling between the county’s rural villages to the bigger towns of Weston-super-Mare, Clevedon and Portishead, and the nearby city of Bristol, are infrequent and not especially cheap.

The lack of infrastructure is a huge source of frustration for the local voluntary sector, says Doreen Smith, the chief executive of Voluntary Action North Somerset, the county’s council for voluntary services.

"You may know where people are and what they need, but you might not be able to provide services in those communities," she says. "Equally, those people can’t always access services if they’re stuck somewhere out of the centre of town."

The infrastructure deficit also exacerbates the key problems affecting people who live in the area: loneliness and isolation, which affect young and old alike, and particularly young parents. Smith says the issue is often masked in rural areas because people know who their neighbours are, but rarely see them, and many commute to work elsewhere. In turn, it contributes to rising levels of mental health problems, particularly among the young, she says.

North Somerset is not a big county, covering just 144 square miles. It stretches from one side of the Clifton Suspension Bridge along the coast of the Bristol estuary to the beginning of the Mendip hills, about 20 miles to the south. It has a population of 202,600.

But that relatively small area is home to the third-largest inequality gap in the country: a man in the wealthiest areas of North Somerset will live 9.1 years longer than one in the most deprived areas.

In the past five years, Smith says, the North Somerset sector has "had highs and lows, mostly lows", the familiar story of rising demand, declining funding and cuts to public services. Some organisations have shown extraordinary resilience, some have merged, but some haven’t survived, and there are particular gaps in mental health and domestic violence provision, she says.

But Smith adds that North Somerset Council has been supportive and, despite its own budget issues, hasn’t followed the many other local authorities that have completely pulled the plug on grants. It has also been proactive in involving the sector in discussions about commissioning.

In April, the funding landscape was subjected to further upheaval with the merger of the three local Clinical Commissioning Groups – North Somerset, Bristol and South Gloucestershire.

Delyth Lloyd-Evans, the chair of Vans, says this has presented an opportunity for the charity sector to represent the views and needs of people from North Somerset.

"It makes sense for the CCG to get bigger, but we are not the same as inner-city Bristol," she says. "Our demographics are significantly different, so people who understand Bristol might not understand what the needs are of the population here.

"For some things there’s expertise in Bristol, but there are a lot of things that should happen locally, and we need a local voice for that."

Vans is itself recovering from a turbulent few years. Between March 2013 and March 2015, its income plummeted from £411,854 to £184,718. The financial challenge led to mission creep, Lloyd-Evans says, because the organisation took on any project that brought in money. This solved the financial problem, but left Vans struggling to identify its role.

Smith and Lloyd-Evans joined the organisation less than 18 months ago and are focusing on a more strategic approach, offering infrastructure support and brokering volunteering, taking on projects only where they think it will actively help the organisation support the sector.

And both are convinced that the answer to many of the challenges faced by Vans and the sector, including isolation, is greater collaboration.

On a front-line level, Vans is starting to work with village groups to explore how community assets such as village halls could be used to host services.

And earlier this year, the organisation launched a strategic network, bringing together representatives from voluntary organisations, the CCG, the local authority and other stakeholders to discuss what was needed in the area and how the sector could provide it. The initial meeting in April was productive, Smith says, but there’s work to be done on helping charities to trumpet their impact and convincing small organisations that working in partnership with others isn’t a precursor to merger.

She’s optimistic about the sector’s future. "The sector’s been recognised and valued here by the old CCG and the council, no doubt about that," she says. "I think they’ve now been forced into a position where they know they can’t deliver what they need to without the sector, so that in itself provides opportunities."

But Smith warns that increased reliance cannot be sustainable without funding.

Lloyd-Evans agrees, warning that there needs to be a focus on the long game.

"As a sector we can manage in the short term, but we’ve got to have our eye on the longer term," she says. "If we don’t, that’s where I think we’re going to go wrong."

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