Empowering North East communities through adaptable research

by Dr Ladan Cockshut

One morning in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, families gathered in Auckland Castle’s Deer Park to allow their children to play, explore and interact with other children through the various sports equipment and organised activities on offer. At any other time, this might seem like a normal summer day; however, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, these occasions have become a novelty for many families. Opportunities for health support and meetups between new parents with little ones have been disrupted, as critical mechanisms of early years support were affected by Covid-19. The Auckland Project’s (TAP) community engagement team, which hosted the day out in the park, worked in partnership with the NHS to support participating families by helping to signpost local resources and answer any questions.

The event was part of TAP’s ongoing work, particularly its Woodhouse Close Regeneration Project, to support the wider Bishop Auckland community. The work has been funded (largely through a grant from the Garfield Weston Foundation) to support sustainable, community led regeneration in the area. Woodhouse Close Central is the most deprived lower-layer super output area (LSOA) in County Durham and the 150th most deprived LSOA in England (out of 32,844 LSOAs). With high levels of deprivation, poor health outcomes and unemployment, this legacy echoes the economic and societal changes that North East England has faced as mines and other industry – once the economic powerhouses of the region – closed and new routes to economic growth and stability were disrupted or diverted, creating a lasting impact on generations of local families.

Working with local stakeholders for expertise and collaboration opportunities, TAP is committing many years to this complex and significant project. One such opportunity includes a research collaboration established in December 2020 between TAP and the Creative Fuse North East (CFNE) project, in the Management and Marketing Department at Durham University Business School. The Durham team, including project lead and principal investigator, associate professor Dr Mariann Hardey, project coordinator Ann Howard, business development manager Ed Ruck-Keene and myself, are focused on supporting and mapping the creative economy across County Durham. It is part of the regionwide CFNE partnership of all five of the North East’s universities, which works closely with creative practitioners, businesses and organisations to strengthen the creative economy across the region. It operates across the intersection of interdisciplinary support and interventions and also facilitates research collaborations and knowledge exchange that benefits the creative landscape and university research.

The TAP-CFNE research collaboration supports the TAP community engagement team in its regeneration work through knowledge exchange activities and by providing research insight and resources from the University that complement TAP’s work at Woodhouse Close.

 

“Our aim in supporting Woodhouse is to empower members of the community themselves to actively participate in designing and choosing the nature of any support we might offer. We want what we do to be of relevance to the community so it can thrive and grow by using people-centred approaches to acknowledge how past challenges have affected those living in the area and work together to find solutions that support the community”.

Laura Emerson Roberts, head of community engagement, The Auckland Project

 

In February 2021, CFNE hosted an interdisciplinary showcase event, where over two dozen researchers from across the University gathered to learn about the regeneration project and to consider future collaboration with TAP. This led to TAP and assistant professor Jed Stevenson (Anthropology) working together on Masters level dissertation research with new mothers at Woodhouse, to explore their experience of parenting support during the pandemic. CFNE is also hosting educational seminars for the TAP team, with the first seminar, on understanding how participatory research can work in complex systems, delivered by emeritus professor David Byrne (Sociology) in July 2021.

The CFNE team is also holding regular mentoring sessions with the team at TAP around identified areas of concern, such as evaluation methods, project adaptations and optimising reporting mechanisms for funding bodies. In August 2021, as Covid-19 restrictions eased, I was able to observe the work of the community engagement team and explore further refinements and project activities. This level of ongoing interaction and support between the two partners is central to the ethos of CFNE’s research collaboration mindset: action research-driven, organisation-focused, mindfully supportive and adaptive to their needs. This approach is allowing the collaboration to adapt to the needs of the project, for example the transformation of TAP’s 300-acre Binchester Hall Farm. Through the commitment and engagement of the Sedgewick family, who have farmed the land for generations, and the vision and support of Tam Mayor, TAP community projects officer, the working farm will transition to using holistic farming methods. It will also set up an innovative educational centre that will not only demonstrate novel and timely approaches to farming in the midst of the climate change crisis but will also provide critical access to a natural learning environment to benefit the local community for generations to come. The work at Binchester Hall Farm is just getting underway. In the meantime, Creative Fuse NE has recently committed to hosting another showcase event in early 2022 for the Farm, to help it identify resources and potential research partners from all disciplines to join it.

“We want the farm to be a resource for the community: a place that supports not only the wellbeing of its people but also the land itself.”

Tam Major, TAP Community Projects Officer

 

For Creative Fuse NE, working in close collaboration on a project like this has allowed it to provide critical skills support for the delivery team while also positioning itself as a supportive, action research-oriented partner that helps cultural organisations, or charities like TAP, not only achieve their goals but also know that they can look to their nearby university for support in the critical work that they do. It speaks to the vision of a university that is not merely a site of learning and research for its members, but is also a place of mutual transformation and growth that can benefit itself and the wider community around it through collaboration and knowledge exchange