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Outliers or trendsetters – are anchor organisations ‘sticking’ to rural communities?

Schools, GP practices, libraries, churches, village halls, shops and post offices are seen as playing a key role in securing the viability of rural communities. In fulfilling social and economic functions they could be described as ‘community anchors’, ‘anchor organisations’ or ‘anchor institutions’ – they have strong ties to the geographic [rural] area where they are based and have a significant impact (individually or collectively) on the local community and economy. Who and where are the anchors in rural places – and are they meeting the socioeconomic needs of local communities or at risk of becoming unstuck? Jessica Sellick investigates.

What and who are anchors?

Back in 2008 three organisations - bassac, Community Matters and the Development Trusts Association - defined community anchors as “independent community-led organisations. They are multi-purpose and provide holistic solutions to local problems and challenges, bringing out the best in people and agencies. They are there for the long term, not just the quick fix. Community anchors are often the driving force in community renewal.” More recently, in 2015, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) described an anchor institution as ‘one that, alongside its main function, plays a significant and recognised role in a locality by making a strategic contribution to the local economy.’

Community anchors come in all shapes and sizes – and are used interchangeably with other terminology including anchor organisations or anchor institutions. ‘Anchors’ can be Local Authorities, further and higher education institutes, hospitals, libraries, museums, military bases, faith based organisations, sports clubs and/or social housing providers for example. For me, what unites anchors is their ‘stickiness’: they stick to people and places and through their assets and activities directly or indirectly support community wellbeing in the locations where they operate.

Where does the term come from?

While the term first came into use in the United States (US) in the 1960s, it was in 2008-2009 that the US Department of Housing and Urban Development convened a national task force to look at how to leverage anchor institutions (particularly higher education and medical institutions – so called “eds and meds”) to help solve urban problems. The development of the term in the US has been traced by the Anchor Institutions Taskforce (AITF) – including the work of academics, led by The Aspen Institute which coined the term ‘community anchor’ in 2001 and other scholars who developed ‘social anchor theory’ (SAT).

In the UK academic work dates back to the work of John Pearce. In 1993 he published a book ‘at the heart of the community economy: community enterprise in a changing world’, followed in 2003 by ‘social enterprise in anytown’.  Pearce sought to articulate the concept of ‘core community enterprise’ (CCE). For Pearce CCE’s were engaged with local economic and social development, building the local community sector, and working with local government and the private sector. In 2001 Stephen Thake published a book called ‘building communities: changing lives’ followed in 2006 by ‘community assets’. Thake advocated for ‘multi-purpose neighbourhood regeneration organisations working as a local anchor’ and latterly for ‘community anchors’ accountable to their local constituencies.

Whereas in the United States academic work has focused on ‘institutional’ anchors and how they strengthen social capital and community identity; in the UK scholars have focused on ‘community’ anchors and their role in local economic development.  

What UK and US scholars share is an emphasis on specific – and mainly large - anchors (such as hospitals or universities). What is less prevalent in the literature is the role of smaller anchors, partnership working amongst anchor organisations, and where and why some anchors fail to achieve their goals or have unforeseen (positive or negative) outcomes on local communities. 

In a UK policy context, interest in ‘anchors’ can be traced back to the Labour Government of the mid-1990s and its focus on welfare reform, tackling social exclusion and promoting a third way. The UK Coalition Government (2010-2015) emphasised civil society – and how organisations with an intimate knowledge of the communities and areas in which they operate could lead people to have a voice in their local community and shape neighbourhood priorities. The Coalition Government also created opportunities for community ownership through the Localism Act 2011.  

In Scotland, the role of community anchors was set out in the 2009 Community Empowerment Action Plan. The 2011 Christie Commission report advocated for public services reform that met the principals of participation, partnership, prevention and performance.  This was followed by the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and reform of Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) and Health and Social Care Partnerships (HSCPs). Collectively this set out a narrative of joint working with community organisations (e.g. development trusts) to reform and deliver public services.

More recently, in England the NHS long term plan sets out commitment from NHS England to develop the role of local NHS organisations as anchor institutions. This is part of a recognition that the NHS can do something about the social and environmental factors that impact on the health of their population and change the way they do business. This commitment led to the publication, in August 2019, of a report by the Health Foundation on the role of the NHS as an anchor institution. Public Health England (PHE) subsequently organised a webinar on inclusive growth and anchor institutions and NHS England is now developing a work programme.  There are already case studies and examples of the health and care system supporting local residents through schemes that target apprenticeships and work placements for people who are long-term unemployed and supporting career opportunities for younger people in the area.

Regarding local government, Preston City Council worked with CLES to adapt an approach developed by Democracy Collaborative in the United States. The Council and its partners came together in 2012 and decided to focus their approach in four key areas: (1) harnessing the wealth already there; (2) maximising the benefits of employing and investing in local staff; (3) encouraging new business development and asset transfer; and (4) supporting the growth of alternative methods of economic governance to give citizens greater control. The ‘Preston Model’  started with the Council looking at its own, and other anchors, spending and supply chains (e.g. looking at what contracts went to suppliers outside of Preston and Lancashire, why, and if some of the procedures governing these contracts could be made more accessible to suppliers). Spend analysis has revealed how, as a result of this work, procurement spend retained in the local economy increased by £74 million between 2012-2013 and 2016-2017. Between 2016 and 2018 the Council participated in Procure (URBACT), and worked with ten other cities across Europe to develop procurement best practice for anchor institutions letting the contracts.

Amongst practitioners interest in anchors can be traced back in 2009 when Community Alliance [now Locality] advocated for an anchor in every community; and a CLES publication in 2015 on ‘creating a good local economy’. CLES in particular describes the increasing role of community anchors in the UK after the economic downturn in 2008 around driving local economic development, community cohesion and local decision making. In parallel in Scotland the anchor model was developed by the Scottish Community Alliance (SCA).

Where are they, and what do they do?

Community anchors are everywhere.

UKCES highlighted three roles that anchors play which helps to identify them: (a) spatial immobility – anchors have strong ties to the geographic area in which they are based; (b) size – anchors tend to be large employers and have significant purchasing power; and (c) anchors tend to operate as not-for-profit

Similarly, Community Alliance [now Locality] identified five roles that community anchors provide. These were around (i) providing local services for their community and supporting local residents to access other services; (ii) bringing capital and financial opportunities into a neighbourhood; (iii) brokering relations between communities and public bodies; (iv) supporting community groups with capacity building, skills development and involvement in local decision making; and (v) encouraging local residents to get involved with local decision making.

Community Alliance also highlighted eight characteristics of community anchors: (1) anchors own or manage a building or physical space which is community owned or led; (2) anchors provide a focus for services and activities that meet local need; (3) anchors are a mechanism through which local voices are heard; (4) anchors provide a platform for community development, (5) anchors support community groups, (6) anchors promote community led enterprise, (7) anchors provide a forum for community discussion, and (8) anchors provide a bridge between communities and the public sector.

In the US, the University of Pennsylvania developed a set of economic guidelines for identifying anchors. These covered a series of questions, including: does it [the organisation] have a large stake and important presence in the community? Is it a centre for culture, learning and innovation? Is it one of the largest employers? Is it among the largest purchasers of goods and services? Does it have economic impact on employment, revenue gathering and spending patterns? Does it consume sizeable amounts of land? Does it have relatively fixed assets? Does it attract businesses and highly skilled individuals? 

Other organisations, including the AITF, have emphasised the need to also consider the role of anchors in social development – what is their vision, mission and how do they develop beneficial relationships with local communities?

These key characteristics – the rootedness and spatial immobility of an organisation alongside their size - the number of people they employ or the number of residents they serve and their spend - the financial and non-financial investment they make in a given local community – all provide starting points for mapping who and where anchors are. 

Anchors can be in the public, private or voluntary and community sector. They can provide a range of employment, career progression, skills training and development opportunities for local people – with some also offering volunteering opportunities and work experience placements. They may deliver a specific or wide range of services (e.g. health, care, education, transport, leisure, retail) to local residents. They could procure a wide range of goods and services. They may also have expertise and resources that they may share with others (e.g. they can bring different partners together to work across organisational boundaries; some anchors invest in local facilities and/or support local community groups).

Importantly, information about who and where anchors are, and what they do, can be overlaid with economic, social and environmental data (e.g. information about deprivation, access to services, skills and qualifications etc.). This provides a means of exploring the current role of anchors and how this could be built upon to deliver even greater local benefits (e.g. through procurement, supply chains, partnership working, community outreach). This also involves finding out how much anchors invest, where, how, why and whether this is meeting the needs of local communities. This would enhance our overall understanding of what resources anchors leverage for local communities.

How important are they in rural communities?

Work on anchors has tended to focus on urban places – with anchors typically regarded as being large [size is important] and based in a city or town.

Back in 2015 a literature review on anchor institutions and their role in developing small firms referenced the work of the North East Growth Hub in assisting businesses in rural areas to access business support. Between 2017 and 2018 the Local Government Association (LGA), Higher Education Council for England and Universities UK delivered a pilot programme with Local Authorities to drive economic growth and redesign public services. Partners included Buckinghamshire County Council [skills], Gloucestershire County Council [collaborative leadership], South Kesteven District Council [university presence in Grantham] and Shropshire Council [digital health technology]. Other work has explored how education and training providers can widen participation through offering vocational provision in rural and coastal areas in the South West of England. In the US work has looked at the role of the rural public library in providing access to broadband services

There is not a plethora of existing work on anchors in rural areas, therefore opening up opportunities to enhance our awareness and understanding of them. Who, what, where and how do anchors operate in rural communities? Context and place are important lenses through which to develop this work. For we need to take into account ‘size’ in that there may be several smaller anchors that come together in a rural place rather than one large organisation; and ‘space’ in recognising how an anchor(s) may cover a wider, sparser geography rather than a city boundary.

In understanding how anchors operate in localities (e.g. how do they fit with health, care, housing, transport and neighbourhood working? What job opportunities – pay and conditions do they offer? How do they procure goods and services?) we can then consider how anchors might increase their reach into rural communities (e.g. procuring more goods and services locally, supply chain relationships, connecting people who are disadvantaged in the local labour market to the jobs they offer?)

In doing this we need to explore anchor relationships with other public, private and voluntary and community sector organisations [how independent should anchors be?] how rural communities can build relationships with anchors [is there a ‘front door’ for residents to engage with them?] and how this can lead to local ownership and buy-in [with rural communities engaged in the governance, strategy and/or activities and services of anchors].

Do anchors fulfil different or wider roles in rural settings where access to services is poorer and businesses tend to be smaller compared to urban places? Importantly, how vulnerable are they – what are the impacts and effects on rural communities when an anchor is no longer there (e.g. the impact of a GP, school or hospital closure)? And what can policy makers and rural communities do to create the conditions to make them more sustainable in rural areas?

There is a renewed and growing interest in anchors. With work in the UK focusing on education and health, particularly in urban places, there is much to do to better understand their role in rural places. Watch this space.


Jessica is a researcher/project manager at Rose Regeneration. Her current work includes helping public sector bodies to measure social value; evaluating an employability programme; and reviewing a project that supports parents committed to recovering from, drugs and/or alcohol addictions. She is also a senior research fellow at The National Centre for Rural Health and Care (NCRHC).

She can be contacted by email jessica.sellick@roseregeneration.co.uk, Telephone 01522 521211, Website -  http://roseregeneration.co.uk / https://www.ncrhc.org/, Blog - http://ruralwords.co.uk, Twitter - @RoseRegen

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