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EANN SINCLAIR: Community planning became central to role in Caithness and Sutherland

By Eann Sinclair

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HIE area manager for Caithness and Sutherland, Eann Sinclair, says shift in focus caused by Covid has changed the outlook of community response

Eann Sinclair. Picture: John Davidson
Eann Sinclair. Picture: John Davidson

It is four years this month since I took up the post of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) area manager for Caithness and Sutherland. That followed nearly 10 years of steering the work of the Caithness and North Sutherland Regeneration Partnership, so I’m not without experience of working in a landscape where there are multiple partner organisations with often competing priorities.

One aspect of my new role was to take the chair of the Caithness Community Planning Partnership (CPP) from Roy Kirk, my predecessor as area manager. But what I hadn’t expected was the central role the CPP would play in the two years that followed.

Community planning in Scotland is aimed at supporting public service providers to work together and with local communities to shape and deliver better services. It comes from the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act, which was passed into law by the Scottish Parliament in 2015.

Community participation lay at the heart of community planning legislation, applying to the development, design and delivery of plans as well as to their review, revision and reporting. The Caithness CPP is one of nine partnerships in the Highland Council area, each reporting to the Highland Community Planning Partnership.

In my first area CPP meetings it was clear that community engagement with the process of developing “locality plans” was rather patchy, and during my first year working with partners we began to look at common issues across Caithness, as well as working with our sister CPP in Sutherland. We began to draw together plans based on these common themes (connectivity, wellbeing etc).

And then in March 2020 the first national lockdown in response to the Covid pandemic was announced, and our worlds changed. Working from home became a new normal – for those whose jobs and digital connections allowed it – and social isolation became a greater factor in many people’s lives.

Befriending was just one aspect of the community response that was stepped up during the pandemic.
Befriending was just one aspect of the community response that was stepped up during the pandemic.

Public partners moved quickly – colleagues at Highland Council set up food hubs in main towns across the council area and within HIE we worked with communities across our area to agree a network of “anchor” organisations who might be best placed to deliver government support at community level. To bring together this network of groups, Caithness Voluntary Group (CVG) set up a resilience group which met online each week so that we could share information on assistance being made available, as well as sharing good practice on how best to deliver what rapidly became vital services across the north.

Despite their wider pandemic response requirements, the public sector partners became fully engaged in these weekly calls, helping with both the flow of information and with the need to be flexible in delivering services. It was particularly helpful that we had been working through the Caithness CPP with CVG, whom we at HIE had assisted to successfully attract funding from the Aspiring Communities Fund. This meant that we already had boots on the ground in our communities, and that the anchor organisations had additional support if needed. The Caithness public sector representatives and CVG became the core team.

During 2020 in Caithness, a series of traumatic events emerged involving young people and their families. These had a significant impact upon the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people, their families and carers and also staff across a number of organisations, the community of volunteers and the public in general. December 2020 saw the creation by CPP partner Highland Council of the Caithness Mental Wellbeing Pathfinder project, which sought to bring together public and voluntary interests. This Scottish Government-funded programme was taken on by Caithness Voluntary Group in 2021 and has become the Here for Caithness initiative, which has continued to deliver valuable support in the area.

Telford House, Caithness Voluntary Group's base in Wick.
Telford House, Caithness Voluntary Group's base in Wick.

The last two years have been difficult for most, and I hope that as a CPP (and as individual partners) we have learned many valuable lessons. Most importantly we saw that in times of crisis our community resilience was incredibly strong, delivering lifeline support to often vulnerable groups and individuals while statutory partners were fully occupied in pandemic response.

That really encapsulates the purpose and value of community planning. Our community resilience network has matured and meets less often, but the public/voluntary relationships have also matured, and work well. The Caithness Voluntary Group team that underpinned so much of our efforts has changed, but at HIE I have been pleased to help that team resource remain in place.

  • Eann Sinclair is area manager, Caithness and Sutherland at Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

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