How to benefit the whole community

In Issue 150 of HIP, HEART Looks Beyond Lockdown, we talked to Alastair Fairley, co-founder of HEART, about the organisation’s post lockdown plans and how to use the energy generated by the large pool of volunteers
that have been assembled during this period. As he said at the time: “Hastings may have avoided being a hotspot for infection, but within weeks or months we will be dealing with an economic crisis and Hastings is not resilient as there is lots of poverty in the town.”

Since then, Alastair has written a 22-page report to lay out his own thoughts and a raft of new ideas to tackle some of the likely issues the town will face as it comes out of lockdown. He has circulated it to various agencies to try to “gather people around an agenda and focus minds” as he puts it.

Jackie Gaunt of Oasis Community Project prepares supplies

Plans emerge

Organisations and individuals, including HEART, are already formulating plans for an immediate post-pandemic response, but there will be inevitable disagreements on what form this should take. Those involved include a consultancy firm, EBS Consulting, employed by East Sussex County Council and the Local Strategic Partnership. The Borough Council is also developing its own plan (but were not able to comment before this edition came out). The wider ‘Community Hub’, involving a broad range of statutory and voluntary agencies, has also been thinking hard.

Alastair’s report is part of that process. He insists that there has to be community input, especially from grassroots agencies like HEART – and others – who can help rethink the current strategies using the experience they gained. “We have to create new approaches to some of our town’s persistent problems,” Alastair adds. “Covid-19 has shown just how well a community can come together to tackle a crisis. We need to capture that momentum and help break the cycle of deprivation which has beset us here for so long.”

The report concludes: “Partnership is no longer a myth but a very real aspect of dealing with this crisis. Recovering from its impact will require very real changes to be made at the highest – and lowest – levels in order to rebuild our country, our towns, and our communities.” 

Green solutions

Work is underway to try to ensure a green new deal is part of any future response, with initiatives around fuel poverty, electrification and energy. This is a good place to start bearing in mind the synergy between the two issues and the work that has already been carried out. According to Richard Watson of Energise Sussex Coast, it is possible to generate green energy locally and more cheaply if there is cooperation between all the local agencies involved, from the council to local housing associations. Lockdown has given Richard the space to think about other issues and he is currently working on a plan to alleviate water debt, another burden for deprived households.

There are also ideas to address the future food ‘security’ of the local population, including food production, gardening and distribution. To date, high-end food production like veg. box schemes can be out of reach or too expensive for many. Initiatives such as Pea Pod Veg Farm feed into the wider picture of sustainable food production but not the urgent needs presented by food poverty in the town.

But in the long term, local production has a lot to offer. As Abby Nicol of Pea Pod says, this could be a moment when people say “Yes, local food!’ (See HIP Issue 152, Power to the PEA-ple). This could be achieved by having a network or a co-operative of community supported agriculture throughout East Sussex with lots of independent farms working together to feed local communities. 

Richard Watson has also come up with a proposal to bridge the gap between healthy food and affordability in the form of a combined food and energy co-operative scheme. The cost of food is increased by the cut taken by ‘the middle man’ in long distribution chains. Instead, he wants a local food distribution centre that links local farmers with local demand. The project aims high, proposing home delivery of organic or local produce, while also aiming to lower the region’s carbon footprint, help households reduce bills and remain healthy and to stimulate  local food growing and sharing at a neighbourhood level. It also involves the delivery of free meals to households in need through an alternative (food) currency.

Until now, government policy has not taken into account the true cost of cheap food: exploitative labour conditions for workers, environmental impact and related health issues. But now there is an opportunity to rethink and address these problems with or without government support. In an ideal world, a shift in government policy could bring both political and infrastructure support for smaller independent food producers.

Some of the useful topics of information on the HEART website

The evolution of existing projects

Most people are aware of how well the local community has responded to the crisis, but for established charities and community groups it has been a difficult time with loss of funding, increased costs, and disruption of the normal ways of operating. 

This is where initiatives such as Big Local North East Hastings (See HIP Issue 116, Think Big, Act Local) have been able to provide some support and cohesion. One pre-lockdown project, Getting Connected, turned out to be particularly valuable during the pandemic: this offered a free tablet and training to older residents, with part of the training covering keeping in touch via email, FaceTime and Facebook. One of the beneficiaries described it as a “godsend”, as it enabled them to stay in touch with friends and family during lockdown.

Originally designed to help deal with the fallout from ‘austerity’, Big Local is a ten-year programme which is now in its eighth year. During this time, it has gained significant experience in dealing with hardship as it struggles to alleviate the consequences of government withdrawal of local support infrastructure. 

During the pandemic, it has been working with Hastings Voluntary Action (HVA) to support the development of the Broomgrove Food Collection Service, who, along with local community groups (In2Play, Broomgrove Resident Association, Oasis Community Project and Dom’s Food mission), have changed their usual operations to directly address the needs of Broomgrove Residents. 

The project will almost certainly continue while there is need, but at some point the partner organisations will be able to return to their usual business, more people will start earning again and the foodbanks will be able to cope once more. In the meantime, HVA are developing similar projects for Hollington and at the Ore Community Centre, a reflection of the widespread need.

This comment from Clare Moutrie, an In2play volunteer, reflects the community’s sense of hope for the future: “It’s so good to keep in touch with in2play families and reach new children and families with ideas for families to do during lockdown. It’s great encouraging children to try something new every week.” It may be a while before changes have an impact, but engagement with the wider community, especially the young, could have a long-lasting positive effect.

HIP will keep focusing on this key subject in future issues. If there is a silver lining to the Coronavirus pandemic it is that considerable work is being done
to help Hastings shape new approaches to its problems. 

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