Northumberland is generally a safe place to live, with a substantial number of neighbourhoods ranked amongst the lowest crime areas in England. This suggests a strong sense of community, even though other common measures of civic engagement such as the extent of participation in local elections present a less positive picture. Our sense of a county at relative ease with itself is reinforced by data from the National Wellbeing Survey in 2015, which showed a higher than average number of residents reporting satisfaction with life and feelings of happiness.
Of course this picture is something of a generalisation, and there are communities that do not reflect the generally positive outlook presented above. Parts of South East Northumberland for example, and pockets of deprivation elsewhere in the county, may have higher than average crime rates. Here personal wellbeing too may be affected by the challenges associated with poverty. Individuals’ ability to engage in community life may also be restricted, for example by a lack of local support services or transport. And for members of minority communities – such as members of Northumberland’s relatively small ethnic minority population, people with disabilities or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender individuals – opportunities to mix with people of the same identity may be more limited than in the more populated areas of Tyne & Wear.
The voluntary sector plays a dual role in building strong and cohesive communities. It both provides services to meet the needs of individuals and communities, and a voice for local residents that complements the work of local elected representatives. Strong civil society organisations are therefore one of the pillars of community life, and Northumberland is fortunate that its voluntary sector has proved resilient in the current funding environment. However research suggests continued pessimism within its ranks about future funding, which should raise concerns about the possible impact of cuts on individuals and communities.
Community Action Northumberland offers a village hall and community building support service across rural Northumberland. Support from Vital Funds at the Community Foundation has ensured that the service will continue to be offered to the 250 community buildings in its catchment area. The service provides information, training and administration of a ‘Hallmark’ quality standard scheme, as well as one-to-one support on matters such as governance, legal issues, policies & procedures, project management, social enterprise, asset transfers and fundraising. By continuing this service CAN is able to create stronger communities which have access to warm, comfortable and safe public meeting place, which are essential to community life and in rural areas.
Fiona Cruickshank OBE, chair-designate of and a fund-holder at the Community Foundation, supports grant making through the unrestricted Vital Northumberland Fund:
“Through its Vital Funds, the Community Foundation is able to provide a safety net for communities in Northumberland. Vital Funds are able to support priorities identified by our research, but also can operate as a support mechanism should a service experience difficulty, or require essential maintenance work that was previously unplanned. A great example of this is an isolated village hall in rural Northumberland, which can be a social lifeline for many members of a village. If a hall were to be damaged then this seriously impacts on its ability to operate, and this is where Vital Funds are available as a safety-mechanism to ensure our communities stay strong and receive the support they need.”