The End of the Village Agents? Yes and No…

In early March 2020 it was announced, to the consternation of many and the surprise of all, that the Village Agent (VA) scheme in West Berkshire was to be discontinued from the end of that month. It was initially unclear why this had happened and what if anything it would be replaced by.

This became apparent to us during a meeting of Hungerford Town Council on 2 March. No one at the meeting knew anything about this beyond what they’d very recently been told by third parties. No web searches afterwards revealed any further information. Penny Post therefore did a bit of digging around over the next few days and contacted a number of people, including representatives of the three main organisations involved.

As described below, the situation seems now to be less the tale of sudden and stealthy service cutting as many first feared, but more one of shifting priorities for West Berkshire Council (in part informed by the requirements of other organisations), poor communication and the problems posed by administrative handovers.

The Village Agents

Many people have benefitted from the VA scheme, established seven years ago, and run since then, by the Volunteer Centre West Berkshire (VCWB). The scheme was, to quote the text on the VA page of the VCWB website, designed ‘to put older and/or socially isolated residents in direct contact with community, voluntary and statutory agencies that offer help and advice and to assist them in engaging in local activities.’ The website goes on to list aspects of life for which Village Agents provide help including housing, pensions and benefits, fire and personal safety, transport, social and health care, leisure opportunities and issues connected with trading standards.

Although there were costs, including training, support and insurance, connected with the VA scheme, the people who actually provided the service (21 at the last count, covering the whole area) were volunteers, putting in up to 60 hours a week. The network was run by an organisation with an excellent record of recruiting and retaining volunteers and which provided a number of associated services like the Befriending service. Although advice about contacting social-care and health providers might have been proffered, this wasn’t treading on the toes of any such organisation in the area. All good stuff, you might think.

Apparently not. In 2019, West Berkshire Council (WBC) decided that this service needed to re-defined. It initially proved hard to find out what this was so I was grateful to be able to talk eventually to Matt Pearce (WBC’s Head of Public Health and Wellbeing), Sue Butterworth (the Healthy Communities Programme Support Officer) and Rachel Johnston (the Senior Programmme Officer). They explained that there were, aside from the legal requirement to review such contracts periodically, two main aspects which the new arrangements needed to reflect.

New priorities

One was WBC’s new strategic priorities, which include providing a wider range of support services, such as with regard to mental health, and encouraging people to take action for themselves such as joining or starting community-based activities – ‘doing things with people, rather than for them or to them,’ as they put it.

The other was to ensure it was aligned with the work being done by the NHS’s new Social Prescribers: which according to Kingsford.org ‘seeks to address people’s needs in a holistic way as well as ‘improving physical and mental health’ and providing ‘restorative practice’ and ‘health coaching.’ Matt Pearce said that the aim was to ensure that the new/continued service covered all these areas an avoided both duplication and cracks.

The fact the these new Social Prescribers (a slightly Orwellian phrase it seems to me, but that’s what they’re called) and the new Community Navigators are coming onto the scene at the same time is perhaps unfortunate. For a layperson, the terms could be swapped over and still seem equally accurate descriptions of the roles. Some confusion between them, and the soon-to-be-defunct VAs, is inevitable. Communication on this point could have been a good deal better.

Tendering

One change to the VA scheme (widening the age range to anyone 18+) had already been introduced in 2019 for the last year of the contract. When the final tender document was provided in the late summer, however, VCWB decided that it couldn’t safely provide the required services on this basis and so confirmed to WBC in October 2019 that it would decline to tender.

‘Following careful consideration,’ a statement from VCWB provided to Penny Post on 3 March 2020 read, ‘we considered that there were simply inadequate funds available to deliver the service in a safe and professional way. West Berkshire Council advertised for a provider to do additional work to include cohorts of clients that we simply could not have supported without greater investment to ensure that case loads were dealt with thoroughly, particularly around mental illness, physical disabilities and learning disabilities. We do not disagree that this is important work but it has to be properly resourced.’ The statement went on to praise the VAs who have done ‘amazing and selfless work in their communities over a number of years.’ This sentiment, and praise for the VCWB’s work, was also echoed in a brief statement issued on 6 March by WBC’s Executive Member for Public Health and Community Wellbeing Rick Jones

It seems that it was clear by mid-January 2020 that the service would not be continuing in its current form and the VAs were informed. At about that time, the well-respected Newbury-based charity Eight Bells for Mental Health was given the contract for the service. ‘Eight Bells is delighted to have been awarded this contract,’ founder Steve Masters told Penny Post on 5 March, ‘and want to praise the terrific work done by VCWB over the past seven years. We’re doing everything we can to ensure continuity and would encourage any current or past VAs to contact Steve directly on stevemasters753@hotmail.com.’

New or old?

Is this a new service or a continuation of an existing one? Opinions differ. VCWB seemed to think it was different enough not to wish to tender and there is much about it that will be new – including, it would seem, the people providing it. WBC is, however, keen to emphasise the fact that it’s a continuation. The above-mentioned brief statement issued on 6 March doesn’t, however, mention the phrase ‘Village Agents’ at all. This creates the impression that a new and perhaps additional service is being discussed, rather than the continuation of a previous one with no major changes involved which WBC has elsewhere been so keen to stress.

Changes, however, there will certainly be. The old network seems to have disintegrated. The new service will use new titles, a new logo, a new manager, a new parent organisation, new procedures and wider responsibilities. Unless a good number of the previous VAs are recruited, most recipients will also be dealing with new people. Separate staff employed by the NHS will also be involved. All of these will impact directly on the people using the service.

Change is always disruptive and sometimes also unwelcome and upsetting, particularly in this case where the recipients of the service were in some ways vulnerable and where the previous provider had been in position for so long. WBC might have been wiser to have assumed that people would have feared the worst (as many did and may yet do) and arranged its publicity accordingly.

The handover

It also appears that there are aspects of the handover which are proceeding less smoothly and seamlessly than might be hoped for. Eight Bells is still appealing for previous VAs to contact them: surely it should have already received this information and have been able to contact them itself? With just over three weeks to go until the handover, it is also still recruiting for a Community Co-ordinator to run the new service. Matt Pearce assured me that the Council remained ‘positive’ about this process and that conversations were continuing with both parties. He wasn’t able to confirm how many of these had involved all three organisations, nor whether there were any other issues, such as data transfer, which might be slowing things down. He stressed that West Berkshire was fully committed to making the transition as frictionless as possible.

It’s to be hoped that enough time has been allowed for this. Viewed from the outside, such important work is invisible. What most people, including many of those who have used or previously provided the service, is uncertainty and confusion – exactly the kind of stressful uncertainties that the VA scheme was designed to avoid.

Conclusion

If the plans that West Berkshire Council’s officers explained to me reach fruition and if the transition period is as seamless as they hoped (including, hopefully, being able to harness to unrivalled skills and dedication of the current VAs) then there’s not reason that the new scheme shouldn’t be a success. Eight Bells has an excellent reputation – and does VCWB – and I’m sure everyone will wish it every success in meeting all the challenges that the project will involve.

What appeared on 2 March to be a rather mirky and tangled affair now seems rather less so. The big lesson here is the importance of clear and timely communication. By not having effected this, WBC has been on the back foot. Silence can be seen as a symptom of a number of things, few of them good. It has taken me about 40 emails and phone conversations to get this far. Much of the information could have been provided in one statement. We might not all have agreed about the statement, of course: but at least we could then all have agreed what it was that we weren’t agreeing about…

Brian Quinn

If you want to comment on anything in this post, please either use the box below or email brian@pennypost.org.uk.

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