Analysis: How a community can help itself

Offering a children's centre alongside other services puts this place at the heart of the community in a deprived inner city area, says Annette Rawstrone.

With next week's Spending Review looming, MPs need look no further than the East End of London for a successful model of joined-up community regeneration. The Bromley-by-Bow Centre serves Tower Hamlets, one of the UK's most deprived wards, by helping families, young people and adults to learn new skills, improve their health and well-being, find employment and develop the confidence to transform their lives.

Vocational learning manager Manda Simmons says, 'The centre is holistic for people's needs. They may come here for learning or to see the doctor, but we address their other needs too. We treat the person as a whole. Patients come here and doctors talk to them not just about ill health but all the wrap-around services that can help them. For example, if they are not taking their pills because they can't afford to buy them because their benefits have been cut, we can offer welfare and advice to them.

'This centre is the pure example of Big Society. Here is where the community is actively helping the community. Some people who have used the centre in the past, either as volunteers or as participants, even work here now.'


The centre offers hugely varied services designed to provide something for everyone, ranging from a GP surgery, a children's centre, adult learning, social enterprise and creative arts to employment and benefits advice (see box). Centre staff work with 2,000 people each week, supporting them across projects and services in four main ways:

  • Supporting people to overcome chronic illness and unhealthy lifestyles
  • Enabling people to learn new skills
  • Supporting people to become less grant-dependent and to find work
  • Providing the tools to create an enterprising community.

These services are integrated so that local people can benefit from a unified approach where staff from across service areas work together.

There is always the issue of funding for the various service delivery areas. Each service area has their own separate funding streams, and the centre has over 65 different sources of funding. Lucy Rosenthal, who manages the vocational curriculum, says that 'with threatened Government funding cuts, having so many funding streams is not such a bad thing for the centre, because it offers a spread of funding. The centre does not have all its eggs in one basket.'

What does concern Joe Hall, one of the centre's GPs, are the threatened cuts to children's centres and the suggestion that Sure Start services will only be for people living in poverty. 'As a local parent as well as a GP, the principle of open access for all children and parents, and also having a children's centre which is very local and accessible, is an essential principle to continue,' says Dr Hall. 'The children's centre provides a broad range of services, such as psychologists, outreach, speech and language and parent support. We are also working to transfer services from the mainstream GP practice to the children's centre, such as maternity services and immunisation. It is really important to continue that support and it is integral to the holistic nature of the centre.

'We want people to attend from across the board, not just people with difficulties. The centre is an important cornerstone of the community where people can meet and share experiences. I am concerned the Spending Review indications are that the focus will be on the deprived community. Cutting progressive inclusive policy short or reducing provision will make it less effective overall. Concentrating on the families most in need is just the tip of the iceberg and may leave many other families without support.'


The centre's mission statement is to 'help create a cohesive, healthy successful and vibrant community, and to remove the label "deprived" from Bromley-by-Bow'.

At the heart of the Bromley-by-Bow Centre's thinking is a belief in people and their capacity to achieve amazing things. This optimism is shared by the centre staff as they look to the future. 'The Government looks to be putting a huge priority on young needs and upskilling adults. They are focusing on skills, education and getting people into work. We can do much of that here,' says Manda Simmons.

The centre, which is the hub for most of its services, is housed in an attractive modern building set around a courtyard garden and surrounded by a park, dotted with sculptures. It is a haven from the surrounding run-down housing and busy roads and provides a positive, welcoming environment. Not everything is bleak. As Ms Simmons says, 'There are grey views all around the centre and then when you get to the centre you feel as though you are entering an oasis.'


The 2001 census found that:

- 61 per cent of households are from ethnic minorities

- 43 per cent of people aged 16 to 74 have no qualifications

- unemployment is at almost three times the national level, with 16 per cent of unemployed people having never worked and 35 per cent long-term unemployed

- almost 70 per cent of tenure is council/housing association, compared with less than 20 per cent for England

- almost five times the level of overcrowding as the national level

- health in the area is poor.


Bromley-by-Bow centre has eight main programme areas:

  • dvice - Including welfare and benefits and legal advice, on top of the advice given by GPs, children's centre
  • - Health and wellbeing - The GP practice is at the core of the service. A health trainers' programme supports people to manage their own health and the centre pioneered 'exercise on prescription'.
  • - Learning - The centre is the third largest provider of adult education and training in Tower Hamlets. Courses include English for speakers of other languages, NVQs geared towards local job opportunities and a BA (Hons) in Social Enterprise.
  • - Working Wonders - A full daycare service for vulnerable adults as well as opportunities to take part in creative arts activities and gardening.
  • - Children's centre for parents, families and children under five.
  • - Arts - The centre has a stained glass studio, stone carving studio and a pottery. Arts are used to instil self-confidence and to open people's eyes to learning.
  • - Employment - Working with the community and local businesses to help people develop skills and gain employment.
  • - A
  • staff and adult learning.
  • - Social enterprise - Several sustainable businesses run from the centre, with profits invested back into it. These include a landscape design business and graphic design agency.


Asad, 35-year-old father of three from Somalia

Asad came to the UK with his wife and their eldest child as a refugee in 2006 and registered with the centre's GP service.

At this time Asad and his family were living in a one-bedroom flat and his wife was expecting another child. He was concerned for the health of his family and didn't know where to turn. After sharing his concerns with his GP, Asad was referred to the centre's advice team for housing advice.

Asad had worked all his life in Somalia and wanted to find work to provide a better life for his family. However, he had little idea as to how to find work in the UK. In 2006, Asad was introduced by his welfare advisor to Sabia from the centre's employment team. When Asad first met Sabia his confidence was very low. He had no qualifications, no contactable references and a low level of spoken English. 'I came to a new place and knew no one. You never meet people like Sabia who want to help you,' he says.

Sabia introduced Asad to the centre's learning department who enrolled Asad on a number of English for Speakers of Other Languages courses and an IT for beginners course to give him the skills to find work. Sabia also arranged a number of short-term contracts doing cleaning and leafleting to build his CV and improve his confidence. He was also doing regular assisted job searches and applications with Sabia, and in 2008 secured his first full-time UK job working as a security guard. At the same time, with help from the centre's welfare advisor, Asad, his wife and their three children moved into a two-bedroom flat.

Asad is now more relaxed, his family are financially better off and he has developed a love of learning. He recently took his family to the zoo, something that would have never been possible when he was struggling to make ends meet. He says, 'The centre has helped me so many times with learning English, sorting out my house and getting a job. Every time I have a problem, like how to do an interview or when my family need help, I can come to the centre. It's fantastic really. I can do things on my own now and Sabia gives me all the encouragement I need. My family are now so happy.'

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