The powerful and effective way communities in North Yorkshire have pulled together and supported each other during the coronavirus pandemic is shaping a strategy for grassroots decision making and action to improve people’s lives across the county.

Throughout the pandemic, we have worked with 23 community support organisations (CSOs), many of them already given funding through our Stronger Communities programme, to make sure people isolated by coronavirus and with no social networks of their own, did not slip through the net.

These organisations have had to adapt, taking on a major coordination role with hundreds of volunteers to support those needing to self-isolate.

We continue to work with those community organisations to help people back into their normal everyday independent living and where required helping people connect or reconnect socially with other people and organisations locally.

We’re now working on a future strategy for our Stronger Communities programme called People, Places and Power. This builds on the lessons from the pandemic and places community anchors, such as the CSOs, at the heart of its plan to drive community action.

This localism, which is at the heart of Stronger Communities, is also a driving force of our proposal to Government for a single council for the whole of North Yorkshire in response to the Government’s requirement for an end to two-tier government in North Yorkshire to secure a devolution deal for a York and North Yorkshire.

Our proposal would see greater powers and funding passed to parish and town councils and communities that would welcome it and the creation of 25 community networks based around market town areas to act as the drivers of renewal and innovation from the bottom up. 

“We have one council but many communities,” said County Councillor leader Carl Les. “The pandemic revealed the power of social action in supporting communities in times of need and the power of a place-based approach to delivering services.

“We are now taking this learning forward in strategy for the future to create strong community networks based around market towns and their hinterlands that have the power to make things happen for the benefit of their local people.”

Stronger Communities was established five years ago to support the transfer of libraries into community ownership as a way of keeping the much-treasured library service going in a time of austerity.

It moved on to supporting prevention services for health and social care, working and supporting communities to start initiatives like Men’s Sheds to help men with their mental health and other projects like Musical Memories to help people living with dementia or walking groups to help people regain confidence with mobility and reconnect with social networks.

Musical Memories has been in existence since 2016 and along the way has had support from Stronger Communities to develop the organisation.

Musical Memories members

Musical Memories has changed and adapted during Covid-19 – before the pandemic, Ruth Hannah and her partner, Neil, would go to venues around Ryedale to deliver vintage songs. But when the pandemic hit they had to adapt to go virtual, and Stronger Communities helped.

Ruth said: “At the start of Musical Memories, we had a grant from Stronger Communities to help us set up and get going.

“More recently we’ve had a grant to help support us through Covid-19 as we went virtual – we needed some equipment to help us stream.

“During lockdown we did a singing session every day and now we do them three times a week, it’s an opportunity for people to sit down, have a cuppa and have some fun.

“For people who don’t have access to the internet we dropped off CDs and songbooks so they didn’t miss out, and we hope that we can start using portable DVD players so they don’t miss out on the visual aspect of things.

“We’ve kept the 123 participants we had before lockdown and gained some more along the way and the feedback has been fantastic.”

People, Places and Power will harness the community-led social action seen during the pandemic to tackle local concerns and make sure no communities get left behind.

Over five years, Stronger Communities has gathered momentum and gained a good reputation among organisations and partners it has worked with in streets, neighbourhoods, villages, wards, market towns and their hinterlands. It has provided a mix of expert and financial support with investments ranging from £500 to £300,000.

An estimated 100,000 residents have benefited from the programme since 2014.

Stronger Communities has also helped to shape how the county council has developed its services overall by taking into account the power of community action to spearhead change for the better.

“We are building on this,” said Cllr Carl Les. “We believe grassroots action and decision making of this kind has proved that it leads to the creation and improvement of services by local people for local people.”