Swapping ideas and experiences and sharing best practice were all themes of the 2012 Armed Forces Community Covenant Conference. Report by Lorraine McBride.
Eighteen months after its launch, the Community Covenant has proved a towering success. Half of the UK’s local authorities have officially signed up to back the Armed Forces Community. The Community Covenant Conference was held in the MOD’s Main Building on 6 November.
The Community Covenant is a statement of mutual support between a civilian community and its local Armed Forces community and outlines the moral pact between the nation, Government and the Armed Forces.
Speaker Sir Merrick Cockell, Chairman of the Local Government Association, told delegates that military units are the backbone of the community and the individuals who serve potentially lay down their lives in conflict. He spoke of councils’ deep gratitude to servicemen and women for their commitment, service and sacrifice, saying:
It’s only right that Service personnel get the support they deserve.
One aim of the Covenant is to encourage communities to support the Armed Forces locally and to nurture understanding among the public about issues affecting the military community. Sir Merrick outlined the importance of keeping the Covenant current to forge a long-standing relationship with military units, citizens and veterans.
Last year, just five local authorities had signed the Community Covenant. Eighteen months on, take-up has soared to nearly half, yet the aim remains largely unchanged - promoting assistance for serving personnel, veterans and cadets. Not all councils have military units stationed in their community, but nearly every council can count Service personnel among its citizens.
Sir Merrick emphasised that military personnel don’t seek special treatment. Instead they call on the MOD, Government and local authorities to redress any disadvantages brought about through their military service.
Lieutenant General Sir Bill Rollo, Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Personnel & Training), provided an overview of issues affecting military personnel. He said that signing the Covenant is just the first step and warned:
The Community Covenant is only worth the paper it’s written on if it’s turned into practice.
The Covenant aims to remove any disadvantages that result from signing on the dotted line, and, secondly, to ensure special treatment where it is justified. There was no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach; needs vary hugely for Armed Forces communities depending on whether they are based in rural communities or bustling garrison towns. Building new homes, priority healthcare, providing careers advice and helping veterans to integrate into the community were all highly encouraged.
With 4.8 million veterans living in Britain, Sir Bill called on the MOD to share information to help councils in their planning. The majority of Service leavers make a successful transition into ‘Civvy Street’ and a little more joined-up effort will go some way to integrate veterans into the community.
Tracking veterans isn’t easy and needs to improve if councils are serious about helping the one in 10 British adults that are veterans. Key challenges for the Armed Forces include the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, reductions in personnel numbers and recalling troops from Germany, which will result in the highest percentage of British troops in the UK since 1784.
In the long term, he predicted that military personnel will settle in communities for longer periods as the nomadic nature of deployment recedes. In contrast, the increased emphasis on the Reserves by around 50 per cent will bring new challenges as they integrate into the Armed Forces. Instead of relying on the Reserves for national emergencies, the future Reserves can count on being called up more regularly:
Recruiting 10,000 Reserves out of a working population of 30 million shouldn’t be too difficult but it will be different,” said Sir Bill.
Next, Clare Simpson from the Covenant Team outlined her own vision for community covenants. She looked beyond the ‘big signing ceremony’ and stressed that a true partnership between a council and military units evolves and strengthens over time, with mutual benefits for all. In short, anyone can sign up to show their support for Service personnel and veterans and increasingly councils are appointing Armed Forces Champions.
To underline her point, Marion Clayton, Chairman of Buckinghamshire County Council, told how she set up a Covenant in Buckinghamshire that raised the profile of RAF Halton, HQ Air Command, the Language School in Beaconsfield and cadets. The relationship ensures that Service children can thrive both educationally and emotionally by people working together to offer support to the Armed Forces, and to make it easier to access help, identifying issues to come up with practical steps that improve health and well-being.
Buckinghamshire County Council’s Chief Executive, Chris Williams, recognised the military contribution by hosting two receptions every year to thank troops returning from deployment on behalf of the county and the nation. Mr Williams spoke with pride that the Buckinghamshire Armed Forces Day in 2010 was the best attended in the country outside the host city.
From a military perspective, Wing Commander Michelle Tinworth from RAF Halton spoke of turning a barren patch of MOD land into a play park for Service and local children. The Covenant had thrown up early ‘quick wins’ for the base by forging links with veterans’ charities and the award of a £40K grant for a First Responder vehicle to support the local ambulance service that has saved lives.
Brigadier Mark Van der Lande, Head of Reserve Forces and Cadets, spoke of the importance of Future Reserves 2020 and the push to increase the size of cadet units across Britain which can do much to develop youngsters’ skills as well as being an opportunity to gain qualifications.
He called on councils to foster links between local reserves units, to create a supportive environment with employers, support services and charities, and to recognise the commitment of Reserves through Armed Forces Day, Uniform to Work Day and annual remembrance ceremonies.
For any council leaders keen to explore what a Community Covenant entails, Chris Simpkins, Director General of the Royal British Legion, has produced a guide of best practice, packed with tips. Councils can make a real difference and Wiltshire County Council has launched a Veterans Charter.
Commodore Martin Atherton, naval regional commander for eastern England, expressed delight at seeing councils embracing the Covenant to cement the relationship between local authorities, soldiers, sailors and airmen. He revealed that home ownership remained patchy among military personnel; the Royal Navy has traditionally enjoyed the highest level of home ownership (60 per cent), falling to just 30 per cent among the Army, with the RAF falling somewhere in between.
Ultimately, servicemen and women who feel part of a supportive community will provide extra reassurance for Armed Forces personnel deployed overseas, making them better able to focus on operations.
Speaker Catherine Spencer, Chief Executive at the Army Families Federation, described the unique problems shared by Service personnel; postings to rural or overseas locations can bring loneliness, stranded miles from the family network, interrupted schooling and upheaval.
The day’s speakers also included representatives from charities, the military, local government and organisations that have benefited from generous grants to deliver successful projects through the Community Covenant Grant Scheme.
Martin Gillett’s project provided activity play days across military units in Oxfordshire; Fiona Macbeth from Exeter University ran a drama workshop which created a radio play based on military life now touring schools; and Alex Grant talked about his ‘Anything but plain, Darling’ art project which teamed up women living in isolated areas around Salisbury Plain to create striking pennants which went on public display.
Mark Francois, Minister of State for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans, had proudly witnessed Essex pledge their own mass support for the Forces by signing one of the largest ever Covenants just hours earlier. He reiterated his own determination to stamp out any inequalities brought about by military service but said that any covenant worth its salt needs to be implemented by all sections of society.
Thanking council delegates in the audience, Mr Francois said that tremendous progress had been achieved; he urged councils to appoint an Armed Forces champion and to ensure housing policies gave Service personnel a fair crack of the whip, and challenged education authorities to ‘do everything you can to ensure that Service children get the schooling they deserve’.
With more than 200 county councils signing up to Community Covenants, many more are on the way. At pains to point out that Rome wasn’t built in a day, Mr Francois told how the introduction of ‘low cost or no cost’ measures can have a real impact and that progress was merely ‘the beginning of the beginning’:
For those yet to sign, I hope you leave today with a whole host of reasons to do so,” he said. “I’m proud of the progress we’ve already made but I think in partnership we can do better. All of us owe these people a debt so let’s roll up our sleeves and get on with it.