The History of the Organisation - Over 60 years of Community Service
The Beginnings 1948 – 1974
The Charity currently known as ACTion with Communities in Cumbria was formed in 1948. On the 19th October that year a group of partners, including County Councillors from Cumberland and Westmorland and representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture met in Penrith at the first meeting of the Cumberland and Westmorland Council for Social Service. Despite the initial intention that the Charity operate across two counties, the reality was that within a few months the focus of its work was the county of Cumberland.
The Charity was born of a need for effective collaboration between the voluntary and statutory sectors if welfare needs were to be met. Of particular concern were the challenges faced by West Cumberland communities that were still suffering from the after affects of the depression years of the 1930s. There was concern too about changes affecting rural economy. These themes are reflected in the Charity’s early work. This included many activities with a social purpose, such as support older people, over 60’s concerts, craft exhibitions, holidays and a long-running programme of training for retirement.
With a more practical focus was the creation of the Rural Industries Sub Committee. This led projects intended to help rural people manage dramatic economic change, an example being the retraining of blacksmiths as motor engineers. The Charity also began a continuing programme of support for other groups, in its early days providing the secretariat for the Guild of Lakeland Craftsmen, the Churches Group for Social Responsibility and the Parish Councils Association.
Some of these early activities were to be a feature of its work throughout its life, including its Village Halls Advice Service and support, in various guises, for a Best Kept Village Competition. Also a continuing feature was its early involvement in social and community research which, in those early days, included reports on issues such as rural homelessness and the use of village halls.
The Middle Years 1974 - 1990
With the creation of Cumbria in 1974 the organisation at last realised the aspirations of its founders, becoming active throughout what had been the counties of Cumberland and Westmorland and those parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire that were merged to form the new County.
Operating initially as Cumbria Council for Voluntary Action the organisation very soon adopted the working name of Voluntary Action Cumbria (VAC) that was to badge its work for the next 34 years.
The growth in the charitable sector, and the more active intervention of the public sector meant that the purely social elements of its early work had faded in importance. Instead, the organisation increasingly focused upon three key areas; pioneering and mainstreaming community development; supporting volunteering and strengthening advocacy on behalf of rural communities.
In the light of the Charity’s more recent work, it is very striking that, as early as 1974, VAC was one or two organisations nationally that were involved in pioneering the use of a community development approach in rural communities. Sponsored by the Development Commission this work noted the failure of the public sector to keep pace with rural needs and identified two key ways to help solve the problem – community planning and social enterprise!
Key themes during the 1970s included promoting volunteering, establishing a network of local organisations to help marry volunteers with volunteering opportunities and the establishment of community social car schemes to help rural residents who had difficulty in accessing the services and facilities that they needed.
Also during this period, the organisation developed the advocacy activity of a forum for people with a shared interest in rural issues. Initial operating as the Cumbria Countryside Conference, this became Cumbria Rural Voice and has more recently used the title Cumbria Rural Forum. The aspiration to influence rural policy remains unchanged.
Early in the 1980s the Charity’s reports focus on growing concerns such as rural depopulation and see VAC actively involved with partners such as the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas (CoSIRA) to promote projects that would help to create new job opportunities for rural people. VAC was also active in the Furness area on a project called Furness Rural Enterprise, helping with the training and development of small businesses.
By 1990 much of this work had reached a level of maturity with community development workers, or patchworkers, engaged in West Cumbria and the use of rural evidence such as parish appraisals being promoted as a tool by which communities could secure public support in addressing their needs.
It is over this period that VAC’s role as a Rural Community Council becomes its core purpose.
Maturity 1990 - 2008
Since 1990, the Charity’s dual role in supporting social action and individual success has continued. During the 1990’s, VAC was a key member of the partnership developing policy for the future of rural areas, commissioning a report (“A Future for Rural Cumbria” by Ecotec) on the issue which influenced County strategy. The next step was to help drive implementation, VAC’s contribution being to secure the first LEADER programme in the County, Fells and Dales, which under the LEADERII and LEADER+ programmes made a crucial contribution to social and economic development.
The organisation was also an early leader in understanding the potential of social enterprise (business with a social purpose) to meet the social, service and economic needs of communities challenged by a lack of public sector support. VAC delivered major support programmes to emerging social enterprises and continues to retain the relevant specialist skills within the staff team.
In the later 1990’s VAC was also a pioneer in understanding and trying to address the particular challenges faced by women wishing to set up business. Two major projects followed, the Farming Women’s project and latter the Rural Women’s Network programme. Both demonstrated the power of tailored support to stimulate new business formation and growth. This work was sufficiently notable for VAC’s Chief Executive at the time, Kate Braithwaite, to be awarded the MBE in 2000.
In 2001 Cumbria was, of course, hugely affected by the Foot and Mouth Disease crisis. VAC played a significant role; its contacts with grass roots communities, and its flexibility as an organisation, enabling it very quickly to adapt to meet short term needs such as running help lines and managing welfare programmes. VAC played its part too in the subsequent regeneration of the rural economy. Key projects including Rural Women’s Network, Enterprising Communities, Rural Futures and Cybermoor building upon the Charity’s strengths in community development and its understanding of rural economies to help in creating new business opportunities.
ACT 2008 – Present
The Charity took the opportunity presented by its 60th Anniversary to reflect upon its role in Cumbria and consult with stakeholders. It was concluded that the organisation’s focus on supporting action within communities was not well reflected in the name Voluntary Action Cumbria, which spoke more of its work in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Accordingly, in October 2008 the working name ACTion with Communities in Cumbria (ACT for short) was adopted. The Charity feels that this reflects its commitment to supporting communities to:
- Plan for their future
Work with others
Influence and change policy
Legacies from 60 years
Over 60 years there have been consistent themes, tackling disadvantage, working with communities, advising village halls and community groups, rural services, transport, rural retail, employment, in other words constant adjustment to change.
In the course of that time one outstanding feature has been the role of the Charity in supporting the formation or early years of a wide variety of other organisations that also continue to service Cumbrian communities.
Among those organisations that have their roots in the Charity are:
- Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB)
- Councils for Voluntary Service (CVS)
- Volunteer Bureaux
- Cumbria Rural Enterprise Agency (CREA)
- Cumbria Rural Housing Trust
- Cumbria Waste Management Environment Trust (CWMET)
- Cumbria Asset Reinvestment Trust (CART) now Enterprise Answers
- Cybermoor Limited
- Cumbria Farmer Network