Charles Lawley

How coronavirus has made the Big Society a reality in the Peak District

How coronavirus has made the Big Society a reality in the Peak District
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These are dark times that are affecting all of us, but I see a glimmer of hope for communities like mine in the Peak District in Derbyshire. Our group’s community-led response, in the face of coronavirus has given me faith that we, and areas like ours, will come out of this with a renewed sense of community and local civil society will be stronger than ever.

I live in Chapel-en-le-Frith in the High Peak. The area has recently transitioned from a large village into a small town, as new developments have steadily increased our numbers over the past few decades. Prior to this crisis, people’s view on the sense of community generally fell into one of two categories. It was either: 'I’ve lived here for years and it’s not like it was' or 'I’m quite new to the area and I don’t really know many people.' However, in the face of all this grimness, I feel that this is changing.

We are a town of about 8,000 adults, however over 1,100 of us have joined our COVID-19 Mutual Aid Group and it has restored a sense of neighbourliness that many of us believed to have been lost forever, under the bricks and mortar of new housing estates. The group is on Facebook and the aim is simple, you post on there if you need help and you post on there if you can offer help. It is a platform for the community to help out each other and, unlike other more centralised responses, it is getting individual problems solved in minutes and seconds, not days and weeks and no one is falling through the cracks.

In the first week of the crisis, a single mother of a severely disabled child asked me to post on her behalf – she needed hand sanitiser to administer medicine to her child but, due to panic buying, she had run out and, because of their strict isolation, couldn’t go to the shops and hunt some out. Within 28 minutes of the post going up, she had five bottles of hand sanitiser on her doorstep delivered from different members of the community.

The group is a prime example of a community operating at its best, as I write this someone from the local secondary school has just posted a picture of PPE made by the children of key workers still at the school and the school’s tech department and they are asking if there are any local frontline workers who need them.

Through the group, we are organising socially-distanced social events, such as Zoom quizzes and teddy bear hunts, and now we are working with the local Morrisons, Aldi and High Peak Foodbank to increase the capacity to deliver to those who have genuine need, via a referral system which factors in local GPs, schools, police and other local institutions.

We are also using the group to advertise businesses that are providing a delivery service or who are still operating with social distancing guidelines – anecdotally it seems that businesses which have adapted to a delivery service are thriving. Once this is over, businesses who have learned that convenience is the high street’s greatest weapon against internet giants, will continue to thrive and could lead the renaissance of local shops . Our high street might not be able to compete with Amazon on price, but Amazon can only deliver to you tomorrow, a business that can deliver to you in the next hour has the advantage. This is the business model which has kept your local takeaways open, despite competition and more businesses are adopting it now.

Civil society should be the bridge between the public and private sector and Chapel-en-le-Frith is one of the towns leading the way; it isn’t about a few individuals taking the lead and being knights in shining armour – that wouldn’t fly in a community like ours – it is about every single one of us, chipping in and looking after our neighbours in our hour of need. And we are all in an our hour of need, the crisis has affected every single one of us in different and unequal ways, whether we have contracted the virus, whether our income has been effected or whether our life has been completely changed – no one is carrying on with business as usual.

Civil society has been undervalued by governments of both stripes, with Conservatives preferring market-led solutions and Labour preferring state-led solutions. There are very few in the political field who champion community-led responses, despite them being more efficient than the private sector and as just as the public sector. What community’s like mine are learning, is that both the private and the public have a role to play, but so does community.

I fear that the worst is yet to come and darker times are ahead. But this crisis does offer us, as a nation, the opportunity to achieve a greater and more equal balance between the public sector, the private sector and civil society and communities should not squander this. Because, whilst I must keep my distance from neighbours, at the same time, I have never felt closer to them.