‘Community spirit’ is one of those phrases that gets bandied about so much it risks becoming meaningless.
But if you ever needed a definition of it, it was there in compelling focus this month at Manchester City Council’s Be Proud Awards, which celebrate those everyday heroes who unselfishly and unstintingly devote time and passion to their communities.
While heart-warming, this might not sound especially strategic. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Indeed, the contributions of those individuals and groups who strive to improve where they live are anything but woolly; they are integral to the success of us delivering our overarching strategy for a thriving city.
It is this recognition that we must start from the strengths of our communities, listening not just to what they need but how they can help achieve it, that is at the core of our collective approach to deliver the 10-year Our Manchester strategy. This is a strategy not just for the council and its partner organisations but for the city and its people. Realising our goals of inclusive economic growth, a healthier population and vibrant neighbourhoods is only possible by focusing on people, not processes and procedures.
These strengths were wonderfully encapsulated at the Town Hall awards ceremony. Such was the wealth of inspiring stories that we quickly realised it would be wrong to have a single recipient. There were four awards for people and groups who had bravely helped casualties in the immediate aftermath of the Manchester Arena attack, running towards rather than away from danger: off-duty doctors Matthew Burrows, David Dolan and Vyki Wijeratne who had attended the Ariana Grande concert and re-entered the arena to treat the wounded; arena first aid provider Emergency Training UK; security operator Showsec; and staff from neighbouring Manchester Victoria station.
There were three further awards for those who sought to bring comfort to a shocked city: Beth Clarke, whose simple idea of asking people to make hearts to give to Manchester people to show solidarity took off around the world; the Khizra Masjid Mosque which opened its doors to act as a drop-off centre and shelter on the night of the attack; and artist Nicholas Franklin, who raised £30,000 for the We Love Manchester Emergency Fund with tiles decorated with the Manchester Bee.
Yet while it is true that the most challenging of times bring out the best in people, and these responses were rightly honoured, we should not allow the darkest of events to overshadow the ongoing commitment of so many others.
Take for example the winner of both our community project of the year and overall pride of Manchester titles, the Miners Community Arts and Music Centre in Moston, north Manchester.
When Louis Beckett asked for permission to use part of the neglected working men’s club as a studio, the landlord gave him the keys to the whole building. In seven years, he has driven a complete transformation, initially with a dedicated team of volunteers and later with funding support from the council and local businesses. The building is now a flourishing community centre boasting a café, gallery space, function room, 70-seat cinema, sports room, radio station, recording studio and community garden.
Or look at neighbour of the year Sally Casey who, understanding the feelings of vulnerability and isolation that advancing age can bring, makes sure her neighbours in Hulme are encouraged to join in the social activities she organises, from art classes to theatre trips and coffee mornings.
Then was our community force winner, community-interest company Yes Manchester (Your Employment Service), which has provided free support and advice to help around 650 people into employment.
Or volunteer group the Whalley Rangers, who not only conduct regular clean-ups of their area but campaign tirelessly to change behaviour and help instil a sense of pride which has helped reduce fly-tipping.
There are many more examples than I have space to showcase here but what they all have in common is a determination to make a difference. And there can be no doubt that collectively they add up to something special.
None of this means that councils like ours do not continue have a vital leadership role. Putting community spirit at the heart of any local strategies is how local government will continue to make improvements.
Joanne Roney, chief executive, Manchester City Council