The voluntary sector is rising to the challenge – don’t get in our way!

We may have been living with Covid-19 for nearly a year now, but we are barely at the beginning of its long shadow. Firstly, there will not be an easy escape from the current recession, the effects of which will be compounded if the government cuts public services again to pay the Covid bill. Secondly, the rise of home and remote working will wreak profound permanent changes, from the rental market to lunchtime catering to working patterns. And finally, the human cost of bereavement, “long Covid” and lockdown mental health will take its toll on people and communities.

At Utilize, we underwent the strange experience of opening a business and community hub against the backdrop of the first national lockdown. We found that there was a huge appetite for innovation even in difficult conditions; many people had newfound time to work on projects, and in fact desperately needed something to occupy themselves with. There was also a renewed sense of community and generosity in a city that can be lonely, from the flourishing of mutual aid groups to the weekly Clap for Carers.

We found ourselves tapping into this twin spirit of creativity and altruism. When our Pepper Street project opened after the first lockdown eased, the charities and local businesses we had provided space to quickly became greater than the sum of their parts, forming an ecosystem which people in the Isle of Dogs particularly gathered around and became part of.

If the networks created in the first lockdown are sustained and built on, the long shadow of Covid can be considerably shorter. In terms of the three effects we discussed at the beginning, community wealth-building projects can encourage talent and keep money circulating around the local economy, as well as providing opportunities for entrepreneurship. When linked to active communities and charitable projects, people who need help can be provided with it or signposted to it in a more efficient way than strained public services are often able to do. And the experience of being part of a network can lessen individual burdens.

The common denominator in this is space. Communities need physical spaces in which people can talk to each other and share ideas, in which services can be provided, and in which local infrastructure can be strengthened. To bring people from different backgrounds and walks of life together and tackle isolation and division, we need places in which to literally bring people together. Anyone watching the first film of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” series, about the struggle of Notting Hill’s Afro-Caribbean community in the 1970s to retain their community restaurant, will understand the importance of these spaces. 

One effect of the move away from offices is the freeing up of additional space. If the rental market remains sluggish, even more space will become free. And well-intentioned investors will not immediately know what use to put it to. This is where our project comes in; blending a deep understanding of community dynamics, public services and charity, and development policy. We can guide those developers who want to have a positive social impact to empty spaces which can be brought to life for the benefit of all.

The voluntary sector will be bearing a huge response burden over the next few years. That burden can be lessened significantly through strong partnerships between community leadership, voluntary organisations, council services, local business, and investors. It’s going to take a lot of work, but we believe communities can be built back better than they were before.

Mahmud Shahnawaz
Co-Founder, The Utilize Project