‘Proliferation’ – The implementation of ABCD in Leeds Part 1

By Mick Ward, Chief Officer, Transformation and Innovation, Adults and Health, Leeds City Council

“This book does say at least two things: first, that health as quality of life, as wholeness unfolding, must be mirrored in the process of undertakings intended to improve health; and that those who would involve others, especially the poor, in the process of healthful change must themselves be involved. The one who would change others must himself be changed.”

This quote comes from Nancy Milio in an interview with Studs Terkel on June 13th 1970, talking about her book: ‘9226 Kercheval: The Storefront That Did Not Burn’.

You can listen to the whole interview (and many many more) at the fantastic Studs Terkel Archive: Nancy Milio discusses her book “9226 Kercheval: The Storefront That Did Not Burn.

I wanted to start with that quote for a number of reasons: firstly the clear message it gives to those of us who work in health and wellbeing, care and support, or other forms of social interventions; secondly, a reminder of the history of community development/organising that got us to ABCD, but mostly I wanted to record that I only came across this quote last week, as I was exploring the Studs Terkel Archive, which I was only doing because of my increasing interest in oral history and community storytelling. Also the reason I picked this interview to listen to, out of the thousands on the site, is down to my own journey into ABCD which very much started in Leeds, and the influence of Cormac Russell and Nurture Development.

In Leeds we have had tackling loneliness, especially for older people, as a priority for many years, which has resulted in the development of the fantastic Neighbourhood Networks across the city. A few years ago we were working to expand their role further, working with libraries and with support from some European Funding, when we came across ABCD after a colleague had heard Cormac speak. She was so inspired that we re-jigged the project which gave us the opportunity to test out Asset Based Community Development as a means to support older people to be more connected to where they lived. This was first trialled in three Neighbourhood Networks in Leeds back in 2013/15 as part of what was called the ‘Senior Network Support (SeNS) Project’. This was using what I would now see as the ‘classic’ ABCD framework of: establishing a Community Builder in the neighbourhood, who identified, enthused and supported community connectors, provided some “small sparks” funding and developed community led asset maps.

Whilst not everything worked (such as a Community Builder reverting back to their role as service provider), there were some early successes that demonstrated this approach was worth pursuing, including the well-known (via Cormac’s Ted Talk) ‘walking and whittling’ story, and in particular how one of the Neighbourhood Networks (Action for Gipton Elderly) changed its way of working to focus on ABCD.

An evaluation of Senior Network Support (Leeds) – SeNS Final Report.

Building on the successes of these early trials, three new ABCD sites, known locally as ‘ABCD pathfinders’ were then established in 2017 funded by LCC Adults and Health. These are in: Seacroft (hosted by LS14 Trust); Armley (hosted by New Wortley Community Association); and Chapeltown (hosted by Black Health Initiative). Crucially, we deliberately targeted organisations that Adults and Health had no or little relationship with, as we wanted to move as far away as possible from social care ‘service land’ to organisations that were rooted in communities, rather than ‘client groups’ – as is the case with so many social care agencies.

On the whole, the achievements of these pathfinders have far exceeded expectations and have shown the transformative potential of people coming together to make changes for themselves and their community.

Crucially, at the same time as we were beginning to ‘commission’ ABCD, we had a new Director of Adults and Health – Cath Roff (Twitter @cath_roff ) who was both passionate about the potential of communities but also had a clear vision of how Social Work could be transformed – now known as ‘Strength Based Social Care’ – changing the way social workers support and work alongside people and focusing on individual’s strengths. The interdependence of these two approaches within Adult Social Care has become more apparent and critical over time as we understand the importance of strong resilient communities and individuals strengths and assets in all that we do.

From this, as we got more information from the pathfinders, and developed our broader knowledge of ABCD from examples from around the country, and indeed the world, we knew we wanted to expand and to secure long term investment to allow us to proliferate ABCD across the city, and I chose the term proliferate deliberately as we were very wary of ‘industrialising’ or ‘going at scale’.

In working to proliferate we made a critical decision in articulating our ABCD strategy: that was to both further establish more ABCD sites across Leeds (the ‘pathfinders’) working to the ABCD Framework (Community Builder, Community Connectors, Small Sparks funding, Asset Mapping), but also to promote ABCD as an ‘approach’ across organisations.

For the former, it has been a case of using the evidence from the pathfinders to argue the case for further funding to establish more sites in neighbourhoods across the city. This has been gained by working with the pathfinders, and with the incredibly useful support from Professor Jane South at Leeds Beckett University, to establish an evaluation framework. This focuses on just three outcomes:

  • Individuals and communities are better connected,
  • Communities identify and work to bring about the changes they want to see
  • People have good friends


In fact the ‘’People have good friends’, was originally articulated as an ambition by Cath Roff, the Director of Adults and Health in Leeds, and indeed has been incorporated as one of my own appraisal targets – I think that in itself is one of the clearest signs of the understanding and support of Leeds City Council at the highest levels for Asset Based Community Development.

These three outcomes though are, of course, notoriously difficult to evidence, so for the pathfinders we have a range of indicators, such as ‘Community Connectors have a thorough knowledge of the area’, ‘Number of groups formed around an interest’, ‘Changes that happen are initiated and sustained by local people’, ‘People know their neighbours names’, ‘Changes to business strategies/funding agreements’ and ‘Number of celebration events’ etc. To get this information we ask the sites to keep diaries, develop local asset maps, and case studies, etc. meaning we get a wealth of information, but it does mean a significant change in how we monitor, moving away from counting to understanding.

The information we got from the pathfinders in this way, and in particular the stories from community connectors, backed by strong political support from the leadership of Leeds City Council and the Health and Wellbeing Board, has allowed us now to receive funding to significantly increase the pathfinder sites from 3 to 12, to fund a dedicated post in LCC to commission and support the work, to fund ABCD training both for the pathfinders but also for those wanting to develop ABCD approaches, and to support 3 of the pathfinders to act as ABCD catalysts, further supporting emerging ABCD sites and promoting ABCD across the city. Crucially, the funding for this is recurrent, ensuring a firm base for long term and sustainable implementation.

Just as importantly, the funding for this has come from a mixture of: the Adults and Health directorate (who are seeing, much like the impact of Neighbourhood Networks, and emerging benefits of Strength Based Social Care, reduced demand for traditional services); the Communities Directorate (who see the potential impact on areas such as community cohesion and local economy) and the NHS (who of course see benefits on individuals health and wellbeing).

However, even at 12 sites we are a long way from covering the whole of Leeds – which has anywhere between 70 + to over 140 neighbourhoods, depending on how you identify them, and as a Leeds born and bred person I lean towards nearer the 140 mark! Therefore we knew we also needed to expand ABCD as an ‘approach, or ‘way of working’ across organisations and services as well as establishing the specific ABCD sites in communities.

Mick Ward

Concluded in Part 2


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