Ten grassroots charities working in Sandwell, at the heart of the industrial Black Country, have joined forces to secure their future – by co-operating.
With the help of development agency Co-operative Futures, ten community centres in the borough of Sandwell have decided to formalise their history of collaborative working through setting up Sandwell Community Hubs Co-operative.
The move will enable them to work together and collaboratively bid for contracts to provide the services that until recently they received grants to run.
Having been at the heart of the Black Country’s proud manufacturing past, Sandwell is now tackling huge challenges recovering from industrial decline. Challenges include dealing with the health, education and social issues created by multi-generational unemployment and poor economic growth. The global recession has hit hard, with Sandwell being the fourth worst affected area in England.
Working together to face these challenges, Sandwell’s Community Centres are vibrant and forward thinking. Governed by volunteer boards of trustees, local services are designed and delivered as a result of strong partnerships with local agencies. The police, fire service, health services and Sandwell Council all work closely together to support service delivery in communities.
This is all in addition to the day-to-day business of Community Centres, including childrens groups, holiday activities, craft groups, education and skill development, and services for elderly residents such as luncheon clubs, tea dances and bingo.
And their work provides more than a social function. Trained advisors help users deal with housing issues and problems at school. Debt advice is readily available to all, while medical professionals and the police regularly attend sessions to offer advice about diet and home security.
Tonia Flannagan from St Albans Community Centre, one of the founding members of the co-operative, explained: “Like all local authorities, Sandwell was forced to reduce direct funding to community centres, which are providing services to the most vulnerable people in society.
“Local charities and companies are now competing with each other for the same funds, while large regional and national organisations are aggressively pitching to supply services, because there are large pots of money available to the successful bidders.
“The council’s commissioners suggested that the community centres might have a better chance of winning those tenders if they joined forces – working in partnership with other community centres and compatible organisations.”
Annette Sandy, company secretary and adviser said: “We looked at various forms for the consortium, and chose the Co-operative because of its values-driven approach and because we want to be part of a bigger movement for sustainability, equality and fairness.
“The assistance of Co-operative Futures was invaluable in getting the Co-operative off the ground.
“Besides guiding us through the formation of the Co-operative, they have also advised us on ways we can diversify our income by working with other co-operatives – such as partnering with Solar Co-op to generate electricity from the roofs of our centres, or recommending the services of the Phone Co-op to our members, and earning a commission from new subscriptions.
Tonia said: “These centres are a vital part of the community, and some of the people who use our centres couldn’t access these services anywhere else.
“As community centres it is vital that we work together to win contracts and continue to offer excellent services to our users. The launch of the Sandwell Community Hubs Co-operative allows us to do this.”
Jim Pettipher, director of Co-operative Futures, said: “Sandwell has a proud co-operative history. It is in the heartland of the Midcounties Co-operative, which founded our not-for-profit development agency eleven years ago.
“Since then, we have helped hundreds of people achieve their social and economic goals by forming their own co-operatives.”
Anyone who wants to start or grow a business that is a co-operative or community owned enterprise should contact Co-operative Futures on 0845 456 2506 or at firstname.lastname@example.org More information is available at www.futures.coop