What next for Farnham?

Four weeks into the current lockdown and I am only now starting to recognise what might be possible in terms of repurposing the Maltings to support the town . We began a month ago by working with the town council and local paper to coordinate the emergency response for Farnham. Together we have set up a helpline, which now supports over 500 people with shopping, prescription pick-ups and social calls, we are providing marshals for the temporary treatment centre at the local hospital and drivers for meals on wheels.

For me, one of the most useful things has been hosting a weekly zoom meeting with 40 community organisations from across the town including resident associations, the MPs office, health authority, town and borough council, food bank, CAB, churches and many others. When setting these meetings up we borrowed much from the What Next model, both in shape and spirit. The meetings are open to all, start and end exactly on time, begin with everyone introducing themselves, invites guest experts and focuses on ‘what can we do’?

Having attended What Next in London pretty much from the start I have often thought we should start a local chapter in Farnham but dismissed the idea because, as a small town, we would struggle to attract sufficient people to make it viable. What I now recognise is that there are a host of people and organisations in every community concerned with ‘the quality of peoples lives’ – although they might not consider themselves as being involved in culture. One of the ‘themes’ of What Next is to forge unlikely alliances and, by chance, we have ended up with a group made up entirely of unlikely alliances.

From the start we agreed a number of principles:

That everything we do should have an ambition to outlive the current crisis.

That we are committed to ‘bottom-up’ development.  If relationships are going to be sustained and communities strengthened then help and services need to be delivered at the most local level rather than trying to provide a town wide ‘service.’

That we will be action orientated with discussions ending with ‘what will we do to make this happen?’

Having established the processes to meet the immediate needs a raft of ideas and possibilities have started to surface – some long held ambitions which have found their time and are being realised at an astonishing pace

Library of things. This isn’t an original idea and it has been on my ‘to do’ list for years but somehow i have never found the moment. But in these times its possible to make things happen very quickly. we have found a shop, created a task team of volunteers and will be up and running later this week. It’s a simple idea. to create a community store of things – games, musical instruments, tools, etc that people can borrow – on trust. What i like about this idea is having a shop on the high street that encourages people to borrow rather than purchase feels timely.

Hardship fund. in half a day we have managed to create a pot of around £20k from organisations like the Lions, Rotary clubs, town council, the parochial trust, a small family trust, etc. They have agreed to work together to instant cash awards to people in need based on referrals from Citizens Advice Bureau, social services, community organisations. We had the idea on last Thursday and hope to be making awards within a week.

Care Homes Each CCG has a Lead for Care Homes and ours was keen for us to develop activities for residents who aren’t receiving visits. There are lots of resources on line so we are pulling together the materials into activity boxes to make this simpler.

We are also now talking to the End of Care teams about what simple acts can be introduced – or reintroduced – to mark the moment of someone passing and aid the grieving process such as opening a window in that moment, which is something that used to regularly happen or placing a paper folded flower on the body (because real flowers are no longer allowed in hospitals)

Other more ambitious thoughts have started to be rehearsed. The most exciting of which is, ‘given there is less traffic about why don’t we trial pedestrianising the town’? i don’t know if we will pull it off but it’s something that has been talked about for 20 years. now might be the moment to describe what kind of community we want to become…..

What am I learning? Some things I have rediscovered, like the value of forging alliances with people not like myself and how this increases what is possible. I am reminded that people I might disagree with politically are sincerely committed to making things better and I should work with rather than against them. This is especially true on the local level. And I am reminded that I work in culture as much as in the arts. And that people express who they are and how they live in all sorts of ways. Through the stories we tell our children, in the songs we sing, in the food that we eat and in how we bury our dead. I have absolutely no doubt of our purpose although i wish it hadn’t been these circumstances that reminded me.

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