Our Place Smethwick – from a place of need to a place of resource


Smethwick, four miles west of Birmingham City Centre, is a town with a long history of community unrest dating back to an infamous 1964 election. The area has high levels of deprivation: 25% of 16 to 74 year olds in the ward have never worked (in comparison to 8% in England), 50.5% of 16 to 74 year olds have no qualifications (28.9% across England) and 2,773 people in the ward have long term health issues that limits their day to day activities. The area is incredibly diverse, with 81.4% of the population non-white, which is four times the average in England. This diversity is a product of both historical diversity and new communities across ethnic groups, creating a melting pot of historic and new multi-ethnic communities.

The project

It is in this context that the Friends and Neighbours scheme came about. First set up in 2011 as a Community Interest Company (CIC) by local residents, the scheme was the response of a community who were dissatisfied with the way the area was being managed and wanted the opportunity to shape their own destiny. For the Chair, Gareth Brown, the scheme was very much about trying to connect old and new residents:

“I have a neighbour on one side who’s lived in Smethwick all his life. On the other side is a neighbour who’s been there a few months, in a property where I’ve had 20 neighbours in 13 years. What we’re trying to create with Friends and Neighbours is a place to connect these people together: a safe place where people can overcome their suspicions and learn new skills. This harmony cannot be found within private companies, charities or government: it is about the community itself.”

Friends and Neighbours sets about providing this harmony by bringing together local voluntary, community and faith organisations at a monthly resource network meeting with residents and elected members. Our Place came along at a perfect time for Friends and Neighbours, creating a number of exciting initiatives. Having identified Our Place in early 2014, Friends and Neighbours worked with local residents through network meetings to draw up a operational plan.

The change

The plan had ambitious targets including increasing the quality of life of 100 residents, reducing social isolation for 450 people, helping 150 people actively engage in supporting vulnerable people and 500 people accessing support around employability and gaining new skills through hubs.

There were also ambitious outcomes around reducing social exclusion and isolation for the most vulnerable people. These included developing and engaging a network of local volunteer community supporters. The overall aim being “to create a cohesive and supportive community with a strong identity.”

A key vehicle for achieving this was the development of community hubs to help residents begin new enterprises and/or increase their opportunities for employment. These had existed informally previously, but through Our Place gained more structure with three clear types emerging:

  • Welcome hubs – Bringing residents together around any agenda in an informal environment to support new/emerging communities.
  • Interest hubs – Bringing residents together around particular skills (e.g. lace making) or interests (e.g. cooking). This has celebrated the diversity of the area and brought different cultural crafts and interests together.
  • Enterprise hubs – For interest hubs that could generate income to help them develop.

Our Place has been invaluable in helping the project develop and critically allowed them to keep ownership, rather than become part of the council’s initiatives or having to deliver through an intermediary. The peer review part of the Our Place programme has also confirmed that they’re on the right track with what they’re trying to do. Critically, Our Place has given them time to plan what they’re trying to do and to bring in external expertise to advice on specific issues or resolve operational challenges.

Our Place has also allowed them to understand the impact of what is being done. Four case studies have been written up demonstrating the impact of Friends and Neighbours. One, from a resident whose parents received support from Friends and Neighbours Community Supporter programme said:

“Both the supporters are fantastic and always go above and beyond their job roles. I wouldn’t know how I would cope without them. My anxiety levels have gone down and my medication has been reduced by knowing that the two supporters give reassurance to my parents and I know they are being looked after by wonderful people.

A big thank you whole-heartedly to the supporters, and Friends and Neighbours organisation and all the wonderful staff.”

Learning and next steps

In addition to looking at the impact of the programme on individuals, they are also looking at how the model can be replicated in other areas nationally. There has been some fantastic learning from the programme, with Chair Gareth Brown reflecting that they “no longer differentiate between users and volunteers: everyone is a participant, and all learning is two way.” Gareth is a passionate believer in the power of an asset based community approach which he believes has “transformed Smethwick from a place of need to a place of resource.”

Going forward, the intention is to continue to develop the Friends and Neighbours proposition: creating more hubs, more opportunities for residents and greater community cohesion. There is an ambition to work more closely with other delivery bodies in the area, as greater partnership working will be critical to achieving greater impact. The community based approach of the programme, together with the needs of residents, friends and neighbours, will always remain at the core.