A forming mining community decided to arrest its decline by tackling its own health and social problems after residents felt abandoned by the public sector, reports Andrew Mickel
● Project name: Bryncynon Strategy
● Aims and objectives: To improve the health and well-being of an ex-coal mining community’s population.
● Staffing: 52 staff across eight teams, and extensive volunteering. 70% of staff are from the local area.
● Numbers of service users: 5,000 users last year, representing 70% of the community.
● Annual funding and funding sources: £1.5m turnover, of which 80% comes from grants, with the rest generated by services. Funders include the Welsh Assembly, Children in Need and the Big Lottery Fund.
● Outcomes: Improved health and progress towards employment. The work has won the organisation a GSK IMPACT award.
The closure of the coal mines in the Cynon valley, South Wales, in the 1980s left a familiar imprint. The area’s biggest employer was gone, and so was most economic and social activity, leaving poverty and social problems.
But out of this bleak picture, the community in the Abercynon ward began to reinvigorate the area and its people, through the Bryncynon Strategy, officially founded in 1996. Fifteen years later, its success in improving the population’s health and well-being has been recognised by the King’s Fund and pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline through their annual GSK IMPACT awards.
In the early 1990s, there was a sense that the state had abandoned the people, says Bryncynon Strategy chief executive Michelle Lenton-Johnson.
“In 1993 the last bastion of public sector involvement was the health clinic,” she says. “Notices went up it was closing. Local people thought, hang on, this is crap, we’re going to be left with nothing. No one’s going to do anything for us outside, so we’ll do something from the inside.”
Local leaders bought the clinic – and negotiated a rental deal to make the local health board pay rent to deliver the same clinics they did before.
It was a move that has all the hallmarks of how the Bryncynon Strategy has operated since: making best use of limited funding to help people tackle health and social problems on their own terms.
There are now 25 funding streams financing work across eight teams, tackling health and social problems from the cradle to the grave, from children’s clinics to bingo.
For adults with social care needs, there are many problems that need tackling, including physical disability, poor health, and social isolation. But the most widespread problem remains depression, exacerbated by the lack of jobs.
The organisation does offer some dedicated support for mental health problems – a free counselling service is massively oversubscribed – but like most of the ingrained social problems, they are primarily tackled through its mainstream services. “We’re a community organisation and we don’t want to put people in boxes,” says Suzanne Marchment, who runs local healthy living centre the Feelgood Factory.
That approach has been used to deliver a health and well-being service for the Royal British Legion, which includes clinics and therapy sessions for veterans. Says Marchment: “What works really well for us is family activities – we did a Valentine’s evening last month for Royal British Legion, so most came along with their partners.
“Some veterans are disabled and they say they can’t get through the week without coming and having a free therapy session.”
Creating work opportunities is a high priority alongside health. The environmental team is training two staff so they can train local people to become parks officers. The strategy is also funded by training programme Bridges Into Work to provide basic employment skills. And a community café and food co-operative, among others, provides options for volunteering. Says Lenton-Johnson: “A lot of our staff start as volunteers and receive training. Then when a job comes up, they have a bit of a foot in the door.”
The culture of local independence does not mean that there are no strong links with statutory services, says Marchment. Strategy staff take part in case reviews with children’s services, and all new staff at the local mental health unit visit the strategy to know what services are available for adults. Four services are also delivered under agreement with Rhondda Cynon Taf Council. Indeed the council describes the strategy as “a jewel in the crown” of the Communities First Programme – the Welsh government’s scheme to improve the plight of disadvantaged areas.
GSK IMPACT judges were impressed by the versatility and responsiveness of the strategy, commenting that “the focus is local needs as defined by local people”.
And that comes back to what created the strategy in the first place: empowering local people to help each other to solve their own problems.
Marchment says: “A lot of volunteers are champions for our work. I’ve tried every marketing tool in the world to reach those who are hardest to reach, but sometimes a friendly face they recognise can make all the difference.”
STORIES FROM BRYNCYNON
Alan James recently moved back to Penrhiwceiber after the breakup of his marriage in Neath. After working two jobs in Neath, one in a supermarket and one as a cleaner, Alan decided to gain new skills.
He joined the Bridges Into Work programme at the Bryncynon Strategy and so far has completed a confidence-building course, and is now learning about stress management.
“I just want to get my life in order and this place has helped me a lot,” says James. “I decided I’ve got to do something better with myself, so I’ve been doing voluntary work on administration – that’s given me more confidence again.
“They won’t put you down here; they’ll keep you happy, and if they can help you then they will. If I didn’t have this, I don’t know what I would do.”
Jolene Paul, support coach on the programme, provides one-to-one support for people taking the course. She says: “A lot of people just don’t know where to go. Some people have never worked before and they just need to take that first positive step – some never go out of the house so it’s good for them to have a regular thing to go to.”
Justin Williams lives in nearby Abercwmboi and visits the strategy for the course every week. He had previously been taking a bricklaying course, but that was cut short after a mountain bike accident left him in a wheelchair.
Now, however, he is back at college and studying for an OCN level in maths. He says the accredited courses at the strategy are a good complement to it.
“Everyone’s confidence has improved massively,” he says. “I had to do a presentation in front of the class, and it went really well. My confidence has gone through the roof.”
He has also built experience by volunteering for the strategy’s administration and fruit and veg group. He describes the course as a “stepping stone to develop”.
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This article is published in the 7 April 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “The community that took its life in its hands”