Investing in Neighbourhood Networks in Birmingham

Matthew Bick, makes the case for partnership and investment in the voluntary and community sectors, based on his experience with neighbourhood networks in Birmingham.

I started as a social worker in Birmingham in 2001, but it took until 2018 for me to appreciate how social work could be helping people connect to the rich sources of support, and opportunities to enjoy life, which communities hold. Examples of this include informal groups, local arts and sporting activities, citizen activists, as well as local voluntary and faith organisations.   

When I started, ‘care management’ was the accepted model for working with adults. From my perspective the major weaknesses of care management are its focus on an individual’s deficits, on ‘plugging’ people into services, or telling someone that, “things weren’t bad enough yet for you to be eligible for a service”.    

Three years ago, I joined a new commissioning team focused on prevention and communities and supporting the transformation of adult social care teams to strength-based practice. In 2018 our ten Constituency based social work teams were starting to roll-out a strength-based model of working based on The Three Conversations (opens new window)®.

Before this, adult social work teams were totally disconnected from communities, and few people had an appreciation of the value, and power, of active citizens, groups, and community-based organisations. One social worker described it; “I get allocated a case, I book a visit, put the address in the satnav and drive from the office to the citizen’s home. On route I have little idea about the community I’ve driven through and its assets. Assessment completed I return to the office still ignorant”.   

We realised we were starting from a low point in our partnership with communities, and that time and effort was needed to reconnect with, and invest in, community-based organisations. Without this it was going to be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the transformation to a community focused and strength-based model. Based on work in Leeds, we developed a Neighbourhood Network model for Birmingham. This film at the top of this page explains our Neighbourhood Network scheme story.

We now have ten Neighbourhood Networks [NNS], eight are managed by voluntary sector organisations and two run by the Council. The NNS role is to: 

  • map and publish details of preventative activities, groups, and support in localities,  

  • develop partnerships between social work teams, community organisations and other professionals locally, 

  • co-produce with citizens in all aspects of NNS – such as identifying gaps, assessing grant applications and citizens leading community activities themselves, 

  • marketing and support for local organisations and groups, including developing their offer via advice and training 

  • manage a small grant fund to benefit local activities and projects 

  • be a learning and development organisation running an NNS leads network across the City.  

Earlier in 2021 we reached an exciting point on our journey. Our Cabinet gave permission to recommission the neighbourhood network schemes until at least 2027. We are proud of the progress we’ve made and excited about continuing to develop NNS, and other preventative work with our partners. Our plans include extending the model to benefit younger disabled adults.  

Over the longer term, I believe NNS has the potential to work across Health and Social Care organisations   and across generational boundaries, developing the resources people need to lead happy, healthy, connected lives that aren’t dependent solely on services and professionals. At the same time, we know we have lots to learn from continuing to work alongside our voluntary and community sector partners, and from people's lived experience.   

Find out more about community models (opens new window) and strength-based approaches (opens new window)  

TLAP report and resources on community building (opens new window)


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