The voluntary and community sector (VCS) in Southwark has called for a cross-sector community hub in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

Southwark Council created a one-stop community hub to deal with the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, which involved the council, local NHS and GP surgeries, charities, and community and volunteer groups.  

At a virtual cabinet meeting on Tuesday (May 5), VCS workers asked that it be made permanent and designed by parties from different sectors to better help mobilise support for vulnerable people in need.

Sarah Thurman, from United St Saviour’s, a charity that provides grants to communities in the borough, said the COVID-19 outbreak highlighted the large number of people in Southwark who are “financially and socially vulnerable”. 

She said the “critical and nimble role” the VCS played in responding to the crisis was “quite extraordinary and humbling”.  

“In the early days there was a massive response from the community but it was a little bit chaotic.  

“For us as funders it was difficult to know what to fund, who to fund, where the coordination was.  

“And that, since the hub was set up, has really improved,” she said, adding that there was “much” to build on after seeing how people from different sectors pulled together.  

Deborah Hayman, from Community Southwark, an umbrella body for the voluntary and community sector, volunteers and social action in the borough, said the hub was “really great”. 

But she said: “Whatever we put in place now can’t just be for COVID, it has to be something that, if money is going to be put into this, it has to be something that has a legacy and goes on long into the future and can be tweaked and used to respond to any crisis or emergency that comes up, or just the issues that are out there.”

Mike Wilson, from community space Pembroke House, summarised three recommendations on behalf of the VCS – a “clear vision for Southwark together”, creating a cross-sector hub, and setting up physical neighbourhood hubs.  

He said: “It’s been incredible to see the efforts gone into rising to the crisis and to see the people who have been able to work together in ways that we haven’t as effectively in the past.  

“It’s important to mention some of the challenges […] we need to reflect as well as saying well done and congratulating ourselves. 

“There have been challenges around the clarity of communication, both between organisations and with residents, there’ve been the knotty issues of data-based management and different lists, and agreements of how we can share some of that intelligence and information. 

“There’s the main challenge in terms of how do we balance this effort that’s going into the emergency response and thinking about the longer-term, how we balance meeting emergency need with planning for the future.  

“Our view as a sector is that, as well as a horrible crisis to face, […] there are opportunities here to really lay foundations for the future, have a long-lasting impact, and to build on these green shoots of new collaboration between sectors, to start pushing forward and thinking about how we want to work together to meet the challenges, not just of COVID, but of the impacts that we know are going to come.” 

He said organistaions can mobilise well when there’s a “common enemy”.  

“We’ve seen in the last 12 weeks people collaborate in ways that we’ve been talking about for five or more years and we’ve put that into practice – we’ve come round tables in response to this crisis.  

“The key thing is we now need to continue this and push it further,” he said. 

He added: “Through this crisis, we’ve seen a huge number of people come on the radar who have real needs, who are vulnerable and are facing the beginnings of crises deep, or are deep in crises – they will need support well beyond lockdown.” 

Mr Wilson said the hub should be collaboratively designed from the outset, staffed jointly by permanent staff across the council, the health services, and the voluntary community sector (VCS). 

Leader Cllr Peter John put in an additional recommendation to work with the VCS to “maximise outcomes for local residents”, which was approved by cabinet.  

“Those conversations will need to continue about how we build that. It certainly doesn’t end today or any time soon,” he said.