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Leeds is on the way to becoming an Age Friendly City. Every area of Leeds has a local organisation specifically for older people. But where did these “neighbourhood networks” start? We look back to the 1980s, when a young social worker found a new way to support older people in Belle Isle and we meet some of the people he inspired along the way.

In the mid-1980s, Belle Isle was not what you might call a salubrious area. A few miles south of Leeds city centre, the estate was designed to house people who had lived in inadequate slum terraces in Hunslet. When they developed in the 1940s, the houses of Belle Isle were well-built and much sought after, but after a long period of neglect, people were beginning to move out. Those who remained suffered from unemployment, poverty and a lack of facilities. Enter social worker Bill Rollinson. Bill soon realised that something needed to be done.

“I got on well with some local councillors,” recalls Bill. He wanted to set up some sort of community centre to help people in Belle Isle. “Eventually we were able to take over an almost derelict council house,” he says. “It had been empty for years.” Bill and his team converted the house on Windmill Road into Belle Isle Neighbourhood Centre. However, he noticed that there was a particular group of people who were in very urgent need: older people. “What we became particularly aware of was identifying that a lot of older people in the area weren’t getting any services from anyone,” says Bill. “Because they weren’t in a critical or emergency situation. But one winter was particularly bad, particularly cold. There was a lot of concern about older people getting hypothermia. They lived in old council houses that were really run-down.”
Bill decided to devote a chunk of his time specifically to older people. “What was needed was something proactive,” says Bill. “Don’t just sit there. Go out and do something!” He organised a meeting of local people to see what could be done; he was surprised at the positive response. “People were so keen. This was an area people had written off. ‘You’re wasting your time, they’re all criminals’ sort of attitude. But people wanted to get involved.” Bill and the team set up Belle Isle Winter Aid, to help older people with heating bills and give them advice about what support and benefits they could get.

“I found that people came in through the door and with a spring in their step, because they had somewhere to come.

However, the project didn’t last just one winter: “it developed its own momentum,” says Bill. “We

realised that the problems were all year round.” Bill and his team also realised that there was value in supporting older people before they got into a crisis or emergency. This preventative, proactive work helped older people keep well and improved their lives. Bill had hit on a way of bringing all sorts of services together to help older people. Belle Isle was suddenly at the centre of something. And people started to notice. Bill had a habit of inviting bigwigs to meetings and AGMs to witness the power of the work – and he would ask them for help afterwards! “We invited the then chair of social services, Councillor Michael Simmons Committee,” Bill recalls. “He knew nothing about it. I don’t know if he’d ever been to Belle Isle. He really liked what he saw. I had a long chat with him. He went back to social services and said, ‘Why isn’t there something like this in every area of the city?’”


Things snowballed from there. What had begun as a way of helping older people in Belle Isle became something bigger. Leeds City Council saw the potential of Bill’s method of working and recruited him to oversee the establishment of similar projects all over the city. The council provided significant seed funding to make this work possible. Bill brought in his friend and colleague Ann Forbes to support the plan and together they spread the message of how other areas could set up their own organisations for older people. Ann was instrumental in setting up the Leeds Older People’s Forum in the early 1990s. By 1994, 12 brand new organisations had been set up across Leeds - and a further 10 existing organisations were able to expand their existing work. Bill was led by two important principles: “the schemes had to be locally based and they had to be run by local older people.”

By 2005, pretty much every part of Leeds had an organisation similar to the one Bill set up in Belle Isle, one devoted to supporting older people. These “neighbourhood networks” are all different because each area is different. People have specific needs and problems. “Local people know how to solve the problems themselves,” says Bill. Each scheme is an independent charitable organisation “run by local older people for local older people.”


The approach that Bill developed has now spread around the UK. Other cities look on enviously at how Leeds is becoming an “age friendly city”. In the following pages, we meet some of the people who were there at the start. Bill, of course. But there have been so many others, some of whom have devoted their lives and careers to the cause of supporting older people. Leeds now has over 30 Neighbourhood Network organisations and we have spoken to a handful of people who were instrumental in setting them up. What motivated them? How have the networks changed people’s lives? And what next for Leeds?

“I really hope the Neighbourhood Networks will continue to exist, to adapt when circumstances change. And they will change.

Cherril Cliffe was the first worker employed by Caring Together in Woodhouse and Little London in 1995, as part of the second tranche of Neighboured Networks. Cherril worked with older people in the area for over 20 years.
Anne Forbes, 83, was an instrumental in the plan to set up support organisations across Leeds in the 1990s. She established the Leeds Older People’s Forum and continues with her mission to support older people in 2023. Currently she works with older destitute asylum seekers.
Dawn Newsome was 22 when she became involved with the establishment of an older people’s scheme in Armley. This was in 1995! She has spent her career at Armley Helping Hands and is now CEO.
Joan Peel, 92, is one of the founders of AVSED, a Neighbourhood Network that operates in Yeadon and the local area. Joan has been involved in AVSED for over 30 years and continues to attend activities.
Muriel Ramsay, 85, is a trustee at MAE Care. She was around at the start of the organisation and has volunteered for the MAE Care for many years. MAE Care sprang out of a project within Churches Together and Muriel is still involved to this day.
Bill Rollinson, 76, pioneered the model of the Neighbourhood Networks when working as a social worker in Belle Isle. He was then tasked with spreading that model throughout Leeds. Bill is now a trustee for Leeds Older People’s Forum
Dorothy Taylor, 97, moved to Moor Allerton when she was 50 and was around when the idea for a MAE Care was mooted. She has been involved in different capacities over the years and continues to attend meetings and activities.
What motivated you to help set up an organisation for older people? What drew you to the work? 
Who and what inspired you? 
Anne: I am an only child. When my mother died, I moved back in with my 85-year-old father to look after him. He only expected to live for six months, but in fact he lived for ten-and-a-half years. I have been through the process of supporting an ageing person. At this time, I realised that there was very little support for older people, many of who were living in poverty and were neglected. I was involved in setting up a support group called Faith in Elderly People which still runs today. So, although I was working for other organisations from the mid-80s, my interests focused on the needs of older people.
Muriel: It was Walter Barber’s idea. He saw a great need in the Leeds 17 area – he felt that this affluent area was neglecting older people. We had a meeting in Father Taylor’s presbytery. I took the first minutes and we decided to form something. You’ve got to have faith. We started out with Christian ethics, but now we welcome everybody of all faiths and backgrounds. It’s for everybody, come what may. I’m from Newcastle, an only child and an elderly mum. I was down here in Leeds and I had a conscience about not being always able to look after her. I thought, “Maybe I can look after someone else’s mum. My conscience brought me here.
Dorothy: We are most grateful to Walter Barber. He was the minister from St Stephen’s church, who
had the idea. There was nothing here on the estate. The churches used to do little parties and try and do things, but it was dead. I’m now 97 and I came when I was 50. There was just mud round here and a couple of houses here and there. No roads, nothing. Nobody here.
Dawn: I was brought up by my grandma and so I'd always been around older people. I used to get quite upset about the amount of old people that were in hospital for long periods of time. I also did some community nursing at the time. There I just saw the loneliness. When this opportunity came, I thought it was a chance for me to be able to do something responsive and have a bigger impact. Bill Rollinson was one of my main inspirations. I was very new and I was young. There were other key people like Cherril Cliffe and Sheila Mann. They took me on board, supported me and gave me the confidence to develop in this area. There was quite a bit of negativity at the beginning but we very quickly got the support of the community.
Cherril: I've always believed myself to have a vocation for working successfully with older people, in a community setting. It gave me real job satisfaction and dovetailed well with my community studies degree, which I received in 1990 - I was a mature student at Bradford and Ilkley Community College. I believe I had a flair for developing innovative projects and activities, to support and improve the quality of life of older people living in deprived inner-city areas. 
Joan: My husband Owen was a baker. He was a very kind person, who would always help other people. This was his spirit, his nature. One day, about 30 years ago, my husband and I were at church and a Mr. Singh suggested the idea of a day centre for older people in Yeadon. AVSED started there.
Stories about how the Neighbourhood Networks changed people’s lives for the better.
Bill: I particularly remember one couple, living in a very run-down council house. It was the first year we did the scheme and it was very cold. We were visiting people because of the fear of hypothermia. The house was freezing. They had very little money. We were able to help in a number of ways. One was to do a complete welfare and benefits check, we would do that to discover if people were eligible for any money they weren’t claiming. They were also able to receive a fuel grant, basically to encourage them to put the heating on. They were a very lonely couple – it was very sad. So the third thing we did was keen connecting with them and link them into other things in the area. Tackling the social isolation.
Cherril: I have literally thousands of stories, having worked with older people in the community for over 25 years. Here are a couple that are hopefully illustrative of the work my team and I did. Margaret was referred to Caring Together by a Social Worker. When I first went out to see her, Margaret was single, with a learning disability and was in her early 70s. She also had a bad case of shingles. She was living in utter squalor (with her wild cat) in a one bed flat in Little London. Despite the cat, the flat was infested with mice and fleas. I managed to apply successfully to the Harrison and Potter Trust and persuaded them to allocate one of their local sheltered alms-house flats to her. I organised her move. Barely anything in her old flat was retrievable and so I went to another charity - got basic items for her new home. My deputy managed to catch the wild cat and take it to a lady who had a shelter for cats. I supported Margaret until I retired in 2015 and then befriended her until she died in 2017. She engaged in many of the activities we provided - choir, day trips, gentle exercise and craft group. We provided door-to-door transport for people with mobility issues. I helped her with her finances and also organised a cleaning service to go in and keep on top of things. At her funeral, her nephew paid testimony to the work of Caring Together, in rescuing his aunt and making her life worth living.
Martin was an elderly German gentleman, living in one furnished room in Hyde Park. The house he lived in was large and the owner lived there too - with over 100 cats! Another rescue operation; this time it was a council owned sheltered flat. I'd just set up a decorating scheme, so our decorator painted the new flat throughout and then we moved Martin. Again, barely any personal effects and so I applied successfully for a grant and this bought a bed, cooker and settee. The remainder of the things he needed came from a couple of charities. Martin was very reserved and so not interested in activities but I did organise a befriending volunteer to visit him regularly and this was a success. He lived happily in his new home.
Muriel: We tried to pick people up that wanted to be involved with something, but they didn’t know what. I found that people came in through the door and with a spring in their step, because they had somewhere to come. Somewhere where people were interested in them and smiled at them. I remember coming in and there was Carol Burns [the ex-manager], sitting at a table with a gentleman – he had some books on trains. She said, “He never comes out of the house, but he comes to me on a Friday because he loves trains.” Every Friday he would come and have an hour with her. There’s a man came in the other day, he said he had no money. We have a breakfast club, so Julia [the current project manager] said, “Come in here and have your breakfast.” Things just happen out of the blue.
Cherril: The neighbourhood networks have been life-changing for older volunteers too. They have  got so much from their experiences, whether it was helping with practical support, befriending, fundraising, helping with group work, trips and activities: all brilliant.
Joan: AVSED has helped so many people over the years. If you want to talk over your troubles, there’s somebody there. Everyone is friendly. Everyone gets on with everyone. Everyone says hello. Everyone’s your friend. It’s a place to belong to.
Dawn: We worked with a gentleman that lived with his mum all his life. His mum died. He had been well connected with us for many years. He had gone from strength-to-strength and even led the domino league for many years - a bit of a character. Before Christmas, his health deteriorated and was taken to hospital. We kept connected with him in hospital and I was actually there the day he died. He wasn't alone. We did everything to his wishes; on the funeral day, there were two neighbours, my team and about 12 members of Armley Helping Hands. When I first met him, he had no expectation of something like that happening. “I’ll die, be thrown into a furnace. There's no point paying for a funeral.”  Now I'm dealing with probate and the solicitor.  But what was interesting is that one of our other gentlemen - who is another character - was in the same situation. On his own. He kept telling me he didn’t need us. But he went to the funeral and after the reception I was walking him from the burial back to the minibus. He pulled me towards him and said, “Ay lass, you don't let any of us die alone”. That’s the impact we have.
How did helping to found the Neighbourhood Network change you?
Muriel: I was a volunteer, used to driving, take people to the shops, the clinic. I helped at the luncheon club at Alwoodley. I joined things – the swimming group, the reading group. I delivered incontinence pads – I’ve done it all! There were so many things that I got involved in. It doesn’t stop. And that does me good, mentally and physically. I didn’t know computers. Everything was new. But we managed. For a long time we were scrobbling around, trying to find funding. It was hard but we did it.
Bill: When I was summonsed to a meeting at the Council, I was apprehensive. To my intense pleasure and surprise, they were saying they wanted to try and start schemes in other parts of the city – and they wanted me to do it. It came as a shock. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse – how could you say no to that? So I took a deep breath and dived into it. Moved from the centre at Belle Isle to Social Services HQ. Completely on my own. I went from being intensely involved in a community with a team of people, to being thrust into an anonymous head office – it was awful. But I liked what I was able to do. So much of it was ad hoc – there was no pre-determined plan. I had to work with people in different areas of the city, most of whom I’d never met. Sell the idea to them and meet with local organisations and representatives. That was a set of skills I had to learn. But it was great. I felt very responsible for it, but it was very rewarding. A lot of schemes started in people’s front rooms. Then actually starting them and getting my head around funding – I made up a funding agreement.
Dawn: I've always been a community person, a caring person. That hasn't changed. If anything it is strengthened and I would say if anything I'm more confident. My empathy is going from strength to strength. I feel that I'm doing something worthwhile and that I can see the outcome of what we do.   I really sympathise with my friends that went into nursing because even though they're doing remarkable work I also can see the frustration.  I have seen the 3rd sector go from strength to strength.  We now seen as a professional body.  For instance, I was asked to speak at the LCP local care plan last week for our area and the first thing I said was that everyone of us in this room has got the same passion and that is about supporting their community and that means everyone of us.
I’ve developed my work so it is about opening doors for our older people and giving them a sense of ownership in the community and a voice in particular when it comes down any decisions of their care.  I do this at all levels.
Cherril: I have always been proud of my early days involvement with the setting up of neighbourhood schemes in Leeds. I believe every part of the city is now covered and helping tens of thousands of older people at any given time. I’m proud of much of the work my team and I did and against a backdrop of diminishing resources and the need to try and raise money, to keep all the plates spinning. Most years, I had to raise in excess of £75,000 to protect the staffing, running costs and all of all the group activities and services. 
Dorothy: It’s been my life. I had two luncheon clubs. It went down a bomb. I loved doing them. I’m now 97. It’s kept me going all along the line. This has been a blessing to everyone.
What difference have the Neighbourhood Networks made in Leeds? How has Leeds become an Age Friendly City? 
Dawn: It’s about the person-centred approach. The Neighbourhood Networks have got a core function but each one is unique to their area. We deliver services based on the needs of our older people in our area.   It's not one template fits all. That means we can challenge the issues that are affecting our older people and then collaboratively we can then take that to the key people across the city about the bigger picture.  That includes hospital care, access to services.   In Leeds the Neighbourhood Networks have got a great strength and function of being the voice for older people and encourage in older people to take that role.  My manager is 83.  My vice chair is 53  and we have look after her dad and her auntie and her dad’s partner.  It’s about  empowering older people so they are not the lost generation.  Some feel once they reach retirement age they will be put on the shelf, but we take them off the shelf, dust them off and encourage them to be themselves. 
Anne: Back in 1985, I was involved in a conference around older people - but no-one signed up.  In the last 35 years the role of older people in society has changed. Things are much better. There are many more, fitter older people with purchasing and voting power. Older people now need to be not too inward looking. They need to feel a responsibility to younger people for whom life is quite hard. I went to a meeting organised by Leeds Citizens some years ago. There were college students there and older people. It was interesting; the older people were worrying about their grandchildren and the younger people about their grandparents. It was really nice, showed an inter-generational solidarity.
Bill: In more recent years, other cities have been looking at what’s been happening in Leeds. I remember several people came up from Birmingham Council: they decided they wanted to start a similar thing. The special thing for Leeds is that in addition to the very vibrant voluntary services we’ve got, we added a whole new layer of organisations that work with older people. Took it on a much larger scale. And the Council continued the funding, with was fantastic. It was really bold of them to do that. And they’ve just agreed a further two years funding.
Muriel: We seem to be one of the busiest charities in Leeds - if not the country. I’m from Newcastle and I’ve never heard about anything that goes on up there.
Dorothy: In the old days, nobody cared. People just relied on their children to look after the. But this is a breakthrough. Making sure there’s a place for the older people to come.
Muriel: Old people felt invisible. They were at the back of the queue. You wouldn’t say anything. But that doesn’t happen today, thank goodness.
Dawn: A dream is that I would never have worries about funding and investment.  That would mean we would have more opportunities and be more flexible.  I would like a better society.  In recent times here there seems to be more and more barriers.  My dream is that those barriers are not there, and end to such things as racism, or ageism.  As to hopes, when it comes to our elders, we need to respect them as key in our communities.  They brought us to where we are and it’s time to show our appreciation.  It’s about building our communities were everyone is more connected and more thought about.  It’s the little things like a smile, a hello, how are you doing that make a difference.  The fish and chip shop is a good example.  Not only do we have a good partnership as we run a supper club twice a week, but in winter they offer more.  There will be a   knock on someone’s door at 5pm with their fish and chips.  She will notice if someone hasn’t answered the doorbell.  The fish shop owner feels part of the community and is contributing.
Cherril: I believe Leeds is seen as a blueprint for working successfully with older people, at a neighbourhood level. It was a conscious decision, driven by people like me and Bill Rollinson. It seemed a brilliant way to support older people and with the involvement of those older people in the decision-making process. When I was managing Caring Together, I had many visits from social care teams from other cities, to talk about the innovative neighbourhood schemes and how to set them up. I also supported many of the workers, taking up positions with the new neighbourhood schemes over the years. I’m not sure Leeds is an entirely age friendly city yet - but there is an awareness of its importance.
Where can things go from here?
Cherril: Looking ahead, we definitely need a new Government. Social Care is in tatters, as is the NHS and so much else. Poverty and inequality are at unprecedented levels and it is a fact that there are millions of frail older people, who are lonely, sick and poor. Whilst neighbourhood schemes in Leeds can support and refer older people for help from other agencies, there is less and less available at a statutory level because of the attack on local authority funding by a hostile government. At 70-years-old and with a number of health and mobility issues, it is hard for me to see where we might be in twenty or thirty years from now. I think Leeds should be proud of the innovative neighbourhood schemes and long may they continue making a positive difference to older peoples’ lives. 
Anne: Let’s hope there are lots of electric buses, that are environmentally friendly and frequent. We need plenty of benches and plenty of accessible toilets. There used to be maps of where toilets were situated - but now there is no map! There is often a similarity between the needs of older people and the needs of mothers of young children. I would hope that the appropriate infrastructure would be in place. I hope the bus pass stays free; it’s wonderful. In the type of housing I am in there used to be wardens. We could really do with people keeping an eye on each other. Older people even (when they are well) could do with someone popping in. People without families need extra attention. So my hope would be that there would be plenty of people around both voluntary and paid to manage the volunteers.
Bill: I really hope the Neighbourhood Networks will continue to exist, to adapt when circumstances change. And they will change. One of the great advantages of the third sector is its ability to be flexible and adaptable. My hope is that the local authority will continue to support them. These organisations are crucial to older people’s health and well-being.
Muriel: We have a slogan: be welcoming, be compassionate, be kind. We’ve been like that, all the time, ever since we started. We have a wonderful staff, a wonderful set of volunteers and wonderful trustees. We are now sailing along in a happy ship – and long may it continue. We’re still expanding – we’re still not big enough! If you look into the future, the elderly will be a great asset. They’ll be a bit wiser and a bit more knowledgeable. Hopefully we’ll have healthier, happier people.

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