Guest Blog: We urgently need a community big build

Nov 17, 2023 | Blog, Guest Blog

It’s understandable we want to put COVID behind us. But in our desire to move on, let’s not throw out this hard-won lesson: given the opportunity and support, local communities come up with the best solutions.

Communities through COVID banded together to fight isolation, support vulnerable neighbours, access food and share reliable information. Our communities even manufactured masks and scrubs. Neighbourhood Houses and Community Centres were at the heart of many of these efforts.

There are more than 400 of these community powerhouses in Victoria, from Portland to Mount Beauty.

And the work they do could hold the secret to solving some of our most wicked problems.

In our post-COVID world with a rocketing cost of living, our communities face crises in food security, mental health, inactivity and lifestyle-driven disease, climate change and increasing fire and flood, to name just a few.

Across Victoria, Neighbourhood Houses are distributing 10 tonnes per day of food relief. Some is direct relief, some is through community meals, which bring the added benefit of social connection and community building. Many of these make use of produce grown by volunteers in community gardens. Apart from some isolated grants, there is no ongoing funding for these efforts.

More than 150 Neighbourhood Houses and Community Centres in the state are part of social prescribing trials, where health practitioners formally refer people experiencing social isolation or loneliness to a Neighbourhood House. It’s early days, but State and Federal governments are evaluating these programs as ways to address the underlying social causes of physical and mental ill health.

Repair cafés to reduce waste, composting programs, urban greening initiatives can be found in many Community Centres. In rural and regional areas, Neighbourhood Houses are running community fire planning initiatives. When fire or flood hit, Neighbourhood Houses are often the first to respond to community need. Flood response and relief efforts in Rochester, Mooroopna and Echuca were all run out of local Neighbourhood Houses, which continue to support the relief and rebuild effort today.

The beauty of community-based solutions is that they are tailored to local needs, build community resilience, encourage ownership through participation, and are inexpensive to fund.

Just as importantly, when social media algorithms drive division, and our ability to create connections across the political or social divide has never been more compromised, neighbourhood houses continue to be safe spaces for community dialog.

While we debate whether the business cases for billion dollar infrastructure projects are positive, Neighbourhood Houses return $21 in community value for every dollar of ongoing state government funding. That’s despite only being funded for an average of 27 hours per week.

Imagine if we had a community ‘big build’ and gave local communities the kind of funding we give to roads or tunnels. We’d not only make real progress on our most difficult problems, we’d be happier and healthier as a result.

Bio at base of blog – see below

Established in 1979, Neighbourhood Houses Victoria is the peak body for the Neighbourhood House sector. Its vision is ‘Strong, safe and vibrant communities that value diversity and gender equity.’ Representing a membership of more than 400 independent, community-based organisations across Victoria that exist to support and develop local communities that are social connected, healthy and thriving.

The author Keir Paterson is the CEO for Neighbourhood Houses Victoria and has worked across mental health, public health, corporate and government. He is passionate about the power of community connection and believes that local communities thrive when given the resources and tools to determine their own futures.