5 Dec 2018
Izzi is a firm believer in the value of volunteering, not just as a means of enriching the lives of those who take part in it, but as a means of enriching communities as a whole.
If we can bring down the barriers to community contribution, the prize is not just a happier, more connected older population, but also healthier, happier communities.
I am a firm believer in the value of volunteering, not just as a means of enriching the lives of those who take part in it, but as a means of enriching our communities as a whole. So I was delighted to be asked to host a roundtable on this subject in Birmingham earlier this month, as part of the Review of Community Contribution in Later Life, led by the Centre for Ageing Better, in partnership with the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
Evidence shows that making a contribution in our communities – from everyday acts of neighbourliness, like putting out the bins, to more formal civic roles like my own - is good for our wellbeing, helping us to develop and maintain strong social connections and giving us a sense of meaning and purpose in life. But sadly, we also know that those who have the most to gain from getting involved are the least likely to take part.
So earlier this month we brought together experts from councils up and down the country and across a range of perspectives from councillors, to directors of social services, to community engagement leads, volunteer coordinators, and older people with personal experience of getting involved in their local areas – to explore what motivates, prevents and supports people in later life and to think about what local authorities could do to widen participation.
Through our discussions we heard about all sorts of inspiring practice in different communities – from the City-wide Neighbourhood Networks initiative in Leeds, to Sheffield’s Community Libraries, to Bracknell Forest’s efforts to create a volunteering passport to cut bureaucracy for volunteers working across the area.
Volunteering brings great benefits to us and our communities – but it isn’t cost free. As one participant put it, volunteers "are not doing it for money but what they are doing it for costs money". In return for their efforts, volunteers expect training, support, reimbursement of expenses, but also more intangible things like being made welcome and having their time and skills appreciated.
However, experience demonstrates that one way or other, people are highly motivated to give their time for the good of their communities, and many are already doing so – sometimes under the radar and outside the formal "volunteering” structures that exist.
I loved the story of the Dorset pub landlord who, when asked if he could identify someone to turn on the heating and buy a pint of milk for an older lady returning from hospital, thought that the village could do better and rallied the whole community to cook her meals throughout her first month home. But the challenge for local authorities is how to enable and encourage this kind of action, while juggling our very real responsibilities for safeguarding and risk management and fewer resources.
We heard how hard it can be for local authorities to "get out of the way" of individuals and communities helping each other out – and how easy it is for local government involvement to bring with it a baggage of systems and process which can put a damper on people’s own initiatives.
Others shared concerns that, as local authorities come under pressure, and the contracting environment becomes more stringent, some community organisations are being forced to ask more of their volunteers and are losing people as a result.
I think what I took away was that there are some important things we can do as local authorities – in our roles as commissioners, as place-shapers and as providers of central infrastructure, to enable more people in later life to volunteer. We can create the space in which communities can step up to help one another, recognising that we won’t always be able to control how this happens.
In so many of our communities, older people are already the lifeblood, holding together Parish Councils, Tenants Associations, community cafes, and village fetes. But as the shape of later life changes – as more of us care, and work, and live with long term conditions – we cannot afford to be complacent about this supply of voluntary effort.
Ensuring that older people in all their diversity, are enabled to contribute to their communities, will require concerted thought and action. But if we can bring down the barriers to community contribution, the prize is not just a happier, more connected older population, but also healthier, happier communities - today and tomorrow.
Cllr Izzi Seccombe OBE is leader of Warwickshire County Council and Chairman of the LGA Community Wellbeing Board.