Set in the moorlands of the North Pennines, at an altitude of 1000 to 1800 feet, Alston Moor is a small community with big ideas. We are far from any major settlements and our history is one of self-sufficiency by necessity. As well as the town of Alston, the parish includes the villages of Garrigill and Nenthead, along with the hamlets of Nenthall, Nentsberry, Galligill, Blagill, Ashgill, Leadgate, Bayles, Raise and isolated farmsteads. The parish had a population of 2,088 at the 2011 census. Weather has tested our community resilience on many occasions in the past, most recently in the form of the ‘Beast from the East’, but as is the case for communities across the globe, with the advent of Covid-19 it is more vital now than ever that we come together to do what we do best, finding unity in the face of adversity.
AMERG is a partnership bringing together community workers, local voluntary sector organisations, community representatives and local service providers, and has been established to support all residents of Alston Moor. Our delivery service has been put in place by a team representing the Church parish of Alston Moor, which covers a larger area than the administrative parish boundary, taking in Slaggyford, Kirkaugh, Knaresdale, Lambley and Halton-Lea-Gate in Northumberland. Anyone familiar with Alston Moor will be aware that due to our geography, our natural community does not fall neatly within county boundaries. Those residents still look to Alston as their local service and support centre in times such as these; many of them work here and have children attending the local schools, and we are keen to continue to support them. We are liaising with the Haltwhistle-based Covid-19 response group covering that area to avoid duplication, and pass on issues above and beyond those which our delivery service can address.
We are operating under a governance structure for a small charity, with decision-making powers delegated to an executive group.
Our membership is self-selecting, with representation coming from all organisations already working to support the community, and comprises;
Our initial core aims are to: • Bring together the individuals supporting the community response across the Alston Moor area in order to coordinate activity and minimise the impacts of Covid-19. • Ensure these individuals, and the organisations they represent, have accurate information related to the response. • Ensure these individuals and organisations are operating safely and within Government guidelines. • Provide a supported and safe way for individuals to volunteer their time and expertise in service of the community. • Ensure that we are working within an appropriate governance structure, using best practice and clear accountability. • Identify the support local residents and organisations need to respond to Covid-19, and the gaps in support available. • Identify the most vulnerable and prioritise support accordingly. • Escalate common concerns and issues that cannot be resolved locally to the Eden Community Resilience Group.
Our actions to date include: • Establishing the core group’s governance structures, policies and administration. We meet online once a week, immediately following the Eden Resilience Group meeting, to ensure good connection with the central response.
• Establishing and operating a local helpline to answer residents’ questions and tailor support. The service is available seven days a week and staffed by a roster of 12 volunteers.
• Establishing a local service delivering food, prescription medicines and other essentials from local Alston businesses, community pharmacy and Alston Moor Medical Practice dispensary to residents’ homes.
• Hosting and maintaining a public-facing website (www.alstonmoorhealth.org) to keep local residents informed online.
• Managing a local Facebook group (www.facebook.com/groups/2518466578364899) to share local information and resources.
• Building and hosting a secure virtual back office and data management system to enable the group to collaborate and manage the project effectively and safely.
• Production and delivery of an information leaflet to keep local residents without access to a computer informed.
• Establishing a phone friends project to tackle social isolation and support the most vulnerable members of the community.
• Establishing an Alston Moor Friends project to carry out socially distanced face to face visits for those wishing to see a friendly face rather than chat over the phone.
• Created and distributed over 100 children’s resource packs to secondary age children on Alston Moor and those who attend school here but who live elsewhere.
• Establishing a calendar of online events and gatherings to tackle social isolation and encourage people to stay connected.
• Creating a structured volunteering opportunity and supporting resources, unlocking vital local resource.
Whilst the immediate need has arisen in response to Covid-19, we intend that the structure and processes established will remain in place to respond to any emergencies which may occur in the future (for example, a weather phenomenon such as ‘the Beast from the East’). In the interim, we will continue to build our capacity, and undertake profile-raising work to raise funds and support for future need.
The group is chaired in a voluntary capacity by Claire Driver, County Councillor for Alston & East Fellside, , and we operate with four trustees; Tim Haldon, Vice Chair Alston Parish Council, Ian Grey, Chair Alston Moor Business Association and acting Head of Governors for Alston Moor Federation, and Jane Burdett, our treasurer.
Alongside the core steering group of 20, we have approximately 60 volunteers who have jointly contributed 479 hours to the project over the first two weeks, averaging 34 hours per day. We are working in line with the best practice set out by established volunteer support organisations, and have based our volunteer pack on resources provided by Cumbria Council for Voluntary Services (“CVS”), tailoring it to suit our needs and the services we are offering. We ensure that at least one of the two members of our delivery teams is DBS checked, and have sourced appropriate personal protective equipment for our volunteers. All volunteers are known to us in a personal or professional capacity, and although at this stage we have not sourced references for each due to the pressures of time, we use our collective experience and knowledge to ensure that we are matching their strengths and skills with the identified needs, whilst being ever-mindful of their own safety and wellbeing.
In addition to establishing project leads for our delivery and phone services, who act as central points of contact for our volunteers, we have established closed WhatsApp groups to encourage the sharing of ideas and best practice, as well as allowing us to capture and celebrate their achievements and experiences to share with the wider community.
Through our website and social media channels we provide regular updates to the community through videos and livestreams. We share key messages following each weekly meeting, highlighting new areas of support available, or calling for new volunteers as our support offer continues to develop in response to emerging need.
Following the advice from our colleagues at Action for Communities in Cumbria, we have established a new Neighbourhood Watch scheme covering the administrative and church parish boundary of Alston Moor. Having logged our new community emergency plan with the Community Resilience Network, our group and activity are now covered by their public liability scheme. The delivery van and their drivers are covered by their own separate vehicle insurance and public liability insurance arranged through the church. Addressing local need
Alston Moor is an isolated but engaged community, and although we have a high level of community resilience, we do face some very significant challenges in relation to our particular demographics, which are amplified when dealing with any emergency situation. We have a higher than average number of residents falling into the 55-75 year old age bracket when compared with Eden and the wider county, with those over 65 making up almost 26% of the community. With serious complications associated with Covid-19 disproportionately affecting that age group, the delivery support we are offering is proving vital in reducing the number of vulnerable people who are moving around unnecessarily. We have a higher number of residents living in one person households at over 38% of the population, increasing the risks associated with social isolation, 16.5% of whom are also aged over 65, placing them at an even greater risk.
There are a lower than average number of people in full time employment, with the majority of people of working age being self-employed and/or in part time work. Life on Alston Moor is in many ways analogous to life on a small island, where many individuals hold down several jobs and social roles in order to support themselves, their families and the community. If any one of those income streams is interrupted, as is the case for so many due to Covid-19, life can become precarious very quickly. We are now finding that many of these individuals are not eligible for any of the government-backed support schemes, and with most having started in a position of almost subsistence living, there is proving very little to fall back on beyond community level support.
We are working with Alston United Charities (www.alstonmoorcofe.org.uk/charities), which supports those who find themselves ‘in a condition of hardship or distress’ to assist with financial difficulties, health issues or disabilities. This fund is receiving an average of 2-3 applications per week already, and we expect this to remain at this level if not increase whilst the current situation continues. We are also directing people to the Fairhill Charity, which again provides relief for those facing financial hardship.
It is already clear that the individuals involved in this community response are finding great comradeship and mutual support through their work. Many speak of how connected they still feel, in spite of being unable to carry out their normal day-to-day tasks, and there has been great support and goodwill towards the response group from the wider community. The Cumbria County Council support helpline is receiving a very low call rate from the area covered by our response, as we are proving able to respond to the vast majority of need in a tailored, personal and local way. Those businesses still operating are fulfilling their social aims admirably, and finding innovative ways to ensure business continuity in service of the local population. Individuals previously sceptical of digital technology are now experiencing the direct benefits of becoming a little more “tech savvy”, and our group’s technical support member is working with those less confident individuals to ensure they can access support online and meet with friends and family in cyber space.
We are committed to ensuring that the structures we are putting in place in response to this unprecedented situation continue to evolve and develop for the benefit of the communities we serve into the future. AMERG are now involved in strategic planning for the recovery phase, led at a district level by Cumbria County Council, with a focus is on how we can embed some of the excellent work already happening. The effects of Covid-19 are going to be felt for some considerable time to come, and as such AMERG are keen to take something which came into being in response to an emergency, and translate it into lasting resilience for our community.