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June 23, 2010

Crucial role for ‘community anchors’

From the outset, LPL has argued that all communities need to have some kind of locally owned and managed organisation if they are to become in any real sense empowered and able to take responsibility for dealing with local issues. Whether this is the local development trust, a housing association, a faith group  or community council – each community needs to decide what suits them best – these ‘community anchors’ are going to have a crucial role as the cuts in public spending start begin to bite


The challenge

The impact of the financial crisis on public services and in particular on the communities that are most dependent on these services will be compounded by another crisis that has evolved largely unnoticed over many years – that of widespread and enduring citizen inaction.  As the relationship between publicly provided services and the citizen has gradually become one of passive consumpton, the resilience of many communities –the capacity to withstand difficult times – has been seriously eroded by this general decline in active citizenship.   When public spending cuts result in a reduced level of public services, it is inevitable that where community resilience is lacking, the impact of these cuts will be most severe, placing even greater pressure on over-stretched public services.

The solution

But community resilience is not evenly distributed. Those communities that posess more resilience than others appear to have certain characteristics in common with one another. Of these, the most consistent feature is the presence of a particular type of  local organisation that fulfils a crucial local purpose. These organisations can take many different forms  such as a housing association, a development trust, a faith group, a credit union or some other form of community association. In this context, these organisations are increasingly referred to by the generic term ‘community anchor’.

Understanding the term ‘community anchor’

If a high street or shopping centre is thriving, more often than not you’ll find a large department store or supermarket at its heart – the property market calls them ‘anchor stores’ –  where lots of trading takes place but even more trading happens around them.   Now consider a neighbourhood as a kind of marketplace where lots of social activity, largely unseen, is constantly unfolding.  Sometimes, but not always, there exists in the middle of all of this a community based organization that operates as a social hub, drawing people in, and making things happen on behalf of others.  These organizations are the equivalent of the ‘anchor store’.  People look to these anchor organizations to provide a degree of local leadership, and community anchors engage with local people in ways that public service providers can only dream about and the private sector is uninterested in. Often community anchor organizations grow out of a community’s frustration with external agencies’ inability to deal with the issues on the ground.

An anchor, or more specifically a drag anchor, also has another meaning.  A drag anchor is put over the side of a boat in a storm. It does not go to the bottom. It hangs in the water.  The boat can rise and fall on the waves and it can weather the storm – and just as important – it is not blown all over the place. Community anchor organisations fulfill this purpose in communities buffeted by changes that are beyond their control.

The role of community anchors at a time of cuts on public sepending

Where an effective community anchor exists, the impact of cuts in public expenditure is likely to be experienced in fundamentally different ways. Firstly, the presence of strong informal networks and high levels of local resourcefulness will ameliorate the impact of these cuts because of the well founded traditions of self help and local self-determination. Secondly, many anchor organisations have already started to redefine the nature of the relationship with public service providers away from an ‘active provider- passive consumer’ model to one which is more alligned to that of ‘co-production’ with responsibilities being shared.  In both respects, not only are many of the hidden and long term costs of cutting services reduced, but it also offers a model of sustainable public service delivery which places active citizenship at its core.