Suffolk communities: community assets


Page last updated: 2022 - due to be refreshed in 2024.

Five key points

  1. Community assets are anything that can be used to improve the quality of community life; this could be a person, a physical structure or place, a community service, or a business. (Community assets
  2. In 2020/21, Suffolk libraries received almost 467,000 physical visits for library purposes, had just over 26,500 active borrowers, and issued 507,350 books and 19,490 audio and visual items. More than 1,730 hours were provided by 127 library volunteers across the county in 2020/21. (Libraries)
  3. In 2019/20, Suffolk Museums welcomed almost 727,000 visitors, and over 2,190 volunteers gave over 138,500 hours of their time, valued at £1.65m, to help run the museums. (Museums and Arts)
  4. According to research carried out for The Art Fund and published in 2019, 63% of people reported finding visiting art galleries and museum was helpful to relieving stress and anxiety. (Museums and Arts)
  5. Parkruns take place in 18 different locations across Suffolk, 5 of which are junior parkruns aimed specifically at children. Around 2,300 runners per week take part in parkruns across the county, with the most popular being those held in Bury St Edmunds, Felixstowe, Ipswich, Kesgrave and Lowestoft (Public Health Analysis).  (Green space and blue space)

Why are communities and community assets important in Suffolk?

What is a community?

Communities are often regarded as geographical, where a group of people live in the same place. However, communities can also be centred around a specific social, leisure, economic or health activity, need or interest, and where groups of people share the same characteristics, attitudes or interests. Communities are generally social structures where personal values, cultural values, business goals, attitudes or a world view are shared by members to provide a sense of connection and belonging.

There is increasing recognition of the role communities have to play in improving health and wellbeing. The reasons for this include:

  • A community in which a person is born, lives, works and/or socialises has a significant influence on how healthy they are. For example, social isolation and loneliness, indicative of a disconnect from the local community, are increasingly understood to be a risk factor to health and  wellbeing in some circumstances.
  • There are ‘assets’ within communities (see section 2.3) that can assist in promoting health and wellbeing.
  • Communities understand what they need from health and care services and what can work to improve health within that community.

Many organisations recognise how communities can benefit the health and wellbeing of individuals and groups within them. Health communities can refer to a group of people with similar health needs (e.g. diabetes) or groups receiving similar health services (e.g. the same diabetes intervention), or a group of people who shape or provide services.

GPs can refer people to a range of local, non-clinical services through a practice known as social prescribing. Recognising that people’s health is determined primarily by a range of social, economic and environmental factors, social prescribing seeks to address people’s needs in a holistic way.  It also aims to support individuals to take greater control of their own health. There are a number of social prescribing initiatives across Suffolk, that help residents to gain confidence, return to work, become involved in volunteering, address debt concerns, improve their physical and mental health, and reduce loneliness.  

Social action

The Cabinet Office commissions the Community Life Survey in England to track the latest trends and developments across areas that are important to encouraging ‘social action’ and empowering communities. The survey uses the term ‘social action’ to describe ‘local people getting involved in their local area’ and undertaking activities such as:

  • setting up a new service or amenity
  • stopping the closure of a service or amenity
  • stopping something happening in the local area
  • running a local service on a voluntary basis, or
  • helping to organise community events, such as a street party

Some of the key findings for England from the 2020/21 survey include: 

  • 1 in 6 (17%) respondents volunteered formally at least once a month; this is lower than this survey usually reports (21% and 23% between 2015/16 and 2018/19) but the opportunities to formally volunteer will have been impacted by the restrictions in 2020 relating to the COVID-19 pandemic
  • 4 in 5 (83%) respondents agreed their area is a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together
  • 19 in 20 (95%) respondents agreed that if they needed help there are people who would be there for them
  • almost three quarters (74%) of people said they chat to their neighbours at least once a month
  • 3 in 4 (79%) people said they were satisfied with their local area
  • 1 in 4 (27%) respondents agreed that they can influence decisions affecting their local area

Average ratings across the four measures of personal well-being in Suffolk in 2020/21 compare favourably to national averages:

  • 7.6 out of 10 for life satisfaction (England: 7.4)
  • 7.4 out of 10 for happiness yesterday (England: 7.3)
  • 3.2 out of 10 for anxiety yesterday (England: 3.3)
  • 7.8 out of 10 for feeling that what you do in life is worthwhile (England: 7.7).

Community assets

Community assets are anything that can be used to improve the quality of community life; this could be a person, a physical structure or place, a community service, or a business.

Examples of community assets in Suffolk include:

  • libraries
  • museums
  • theatres
  • galleries
  • leisure centres
  • sports facilities
  • high streets
  • post offices and local stores
  • green/blue space

What community assets are available in Suffolk?


In 2018, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published a report CIPFA statistics and the future of England’s Libraries that concluded that while data continues to show a decline in public library use nationally – both in terms of visits and book issues – this downward trend may be slowing. In addition, this trend hides large variations across library services in the country; for example, Suffolk is identified in the report as one of 31 libraries in England that increased its visit numbers since 2015/16 – although note this report was published prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which will have impacted on library visits nationally.

In 2020/21, Suffolk libraries:

  • received almost 467,000 physical visits for library purposes
  • had just over 26,500 active borrowers
  • issued 507,350 books and 19,490 audio and visual items

Libraries form part of the digital offer in Suffolk. All libraries offer free public Wi-Fi access, PCs and Chromebases available for use and borrowable Chromebook laptops, eReaders and iPads. As at the end of March 2021, there were 462 publicly usable devices across 46 libraries.

In addition to the provision of book and online lending schemes, access to the internet and mobile library services, Suffolk Libraries also offer activities across all age groups, including reading and literacy groups, Lego groups, and sing along groups. The service also provides access and support for people looking for employment, such as helping with CV writing and benefit advice; at least 21 people in 2019/20 gained employment as a direct result of the Suffolk Library Service.

More than 27,000 COVID-19 testing kits have been collected from libraries across the county since April 2021 and a range of services – such as Barclays Bank, Citizen’s Advice Bureaus, and One Life Suffolk – also operate from some sites. ‘Period poverty’ refers to having a lack of access to sanitary products due to financial constraints; in partnership with the Co-op and other organisations, Suffolk libraries provide free sanitary items to fight period poverty.

Online activity has been so successful during the pandemic that this offer has continued. This is despite libraries now being open and in-person visiting increasing since lockdown rules have eased; this demonstrates a need for both online and in-person service provision. During lockdown periods, library staff were trained in safeguarding, mental health first aid, recognition of domestic violence, and money, advice and pension services. 

Volunteers work in libraries throughout the county to support paid staff. In 2020/21,1732 hours were provided by 127 library volunteers across the county. Libraries are a volunteering destination for children and young people and can be an access point into work, or back into work, for people with mental ill-health and or disabilities.

In 2019/20, Suffolk Libraries held 14,457 events/activities (a 53% increase on the number held in 2015/16) which were attended by 204,425 people. Many of these events/activities were aimed at improving mental and physical wellbeing and building personal and community resilience. In addition, libraries in Suffolk contribute to increased reading and literacy, both of which are essential for wellbeing and full engagement in community life.

For example, the ‘Get Suffolk Reading’ is a county-wide campaign funded by Suffolk County Council and run by the National Literacy Trust in collaboration with Suffolk Libraries, Suffolk Mind and Home Start Suffolk. Launched in September 2021, it aims to inspire families to read together and help parents to support their children develop their literacy skills, with focussed activity in Haverhill, Stowmarket and Lowestoft.  Sixty-one community volunteers were recruited as Literacy Champions to support the project.

Since launch, more than 4,800 books have been gifted as part of the campaign, with a further 500 plus second-hand books re-circulated through a Haverhill community bookshelves scheme. In addition:

  • A storytelling launch event was held in Haverhill town centre in October with 100+ families attending
  • World Book Day activities are planned county-wide with targeted gifting through partnership with Suffolk Libraries
  • Love Reading parental engagement programmes are planned for Haverhill, Lowestoft and Stowmarket

In May 2021 Suffolk Libraries launched a six week entrepreneurship programme for women to help provide the skills, support and confidence to bring business ideas to fruition. In partnership with the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (NALEP) and Radikl, Suffolk Libraries are currently supporting 80 female entrepreneurs with business advice and support.

The ‘Let’s Get Creative’ initiative is an online resource of free and low-cost creative experiences happening in and around Suffolk. In addition, Suffolk Libraries works in partnership with Suffolk MIND and Suffolk Family Carers to offer advice, information and Open Space activities for people at risk of or recovering from mental ill-health.

Museums and Arts

There are over 50 museums in Suffolk that offer a wide variety of activities. In 2019/20, Suffolk Museums:

  • Welcomed almost 727,000 visitors to museums
  • Employed 131 full time equivalent staff
  • Supported 2,191 volunteers to participate
  • Delivered 138,584 volunteer hours valued at £1.65m to museums
  • Engaged almost 40,000 children and young people in a learning activity
  • Generated over £18.6m to the economy

Figure 1: Statistics about Suffolk Museums, 2019/20]

Infographic illustrating the text (list under museums and arts)

Museums enable people to take an interest in their local environment and contribute a sense of place and pride in their localities. Specific activities available at Suffolk museums include research, gardening, carpentry, photography, retail and creative group activities.

According to research carried out for The Art Fund and published in 2019, 63% of people reported finding visiting art galleries and museum was helpful to relieving stress and anxiety. In August 2018 they commissioned an investigation into how regularly engaging with museums and galleries could contribute to an individual’s sense of wellbeing. The results of two stages of research – a UK-wide representative survey, and a qualitative social study in which participants were encouraged to visit museums and galleries once a week with a National Art Pass and keep a diary of their activities – suggest that engaging with the nation’s art collections more frequently can help improve our wellbeing.

Museums can bring people together, and over time it can become part of an approach to life that people may find healthier and more balanced.  In the survey, those who say they regularly visit museums and galleries as part of their overall lifestyle choices tend to feel much more satisfied with their lives, and in the social study, those who visit at least once a week report a range of benefits, from learning new things to finding space to reflect.

However a study published by BMC Public Health in 2021 found ‘higher levels of neighbourhood deprivation were associated with lower arts, culture and heritage engagement’. It concluded that social and health inequalities may be increased due to deprivation acting as a barrier to engagement. It is important to consider this finding in relation to the access to and availability of current and future art, cultural and heritage activities and events. The study suggests schemes consider potential structural/neighbourhood barriers to engagement - such as a lack of permanent arts centres, or a lack of regularly funded organisations/professional arts and cultural facilities – alongside ways to increase individual motivation and capacity to engage.

The Creative Health: Arts for health and wellbeing report was published in July 2017 by an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing. It followed an inquiry into practice and research in the arts in health and social care, with a view to making recommendations to improve policy and practice in using and commissioning arts and heritage activity to support recovery, improvements, and maintenance of wellbeing and good health. Activity in Suffolk Museums was cited as an example of good practice in this report.

Arts and Museums are delivering Kickstart opportunities for young, long-term unemployed people across Suffolk, supporting over 100 placements across the county and attracting national investment to deliver this. Each placement provides at least 25 hours a week at the appropriate minimum wage, with costs paid to the employer from national government. The programme aims to provide confidence and competence to individuals aged 16-24 years to help them succeed and make them more attractive to future employers. It also aims to maximise readiness to find long-term employment.

Other initiatives involving or supported by Suffolk Museums and Arts include:

  • Holiday Activity Programme (HAF) which supports children and families in the school holidays. Outside of term-time, the Programme provides healthy food and enriching activities to free school meal eligible children.
  • Screen Suffolk which pulls on local businesses, local people and local skills to assist with film productions set in the county.
  • Theatre in Education is an initiative being developed for schools. Focusing on Years 6 and 7 (10-12 years) it combines storytelling, performance, and music with key messages about mental wellbeing. It is designed to enable teachers to start conversations about mental wellbeing and to explore and promote positive approaches to mental health (Public Health and Communities Analysis).

Although the cultural sector nationwide has been hit very hard by the COVID-19 pandemic - losing significant earned income during lockdowns and managing reduced capacity as opening up began - within Suffolk the sector coped well. In addition, arts and museums locally have worked with Suffolk County Council supporting food banks, providing activity packs for those isolating, delivering online activity, developing new outdoor activity, making outdoor space available to families, and developing a range of initiatives to support new, safe ways of working. Arts and museums are now working hard to rebuild, and early indicators suggest that the public is very keen to take part again. 

Sport and leisure facilities

Sport and recreation forms a crucial aspect of the work to make Suffolk the most active county in England. Sport and leisure facilities not only contribute to the physical and mental wellbeing of the residents of Suffolk, but also act as community assets to bring together individuals with shared interests or circumstances, thereby improving community links and cohesion, and building social capital.

There are numerous public and private sport and leisure facilities across the county offering a variety of activities, including traditional sports such as swimming, badminton and football and less traditional activities such as climbing, Tai Chi and yoga. Many also offer other important health related services and interventions including falls prevention, cardiac rehabilitation, exercise referral and dementia friendly activity. This is important because inactivity is one of the top 10 causes of disease and disability in England and accounts for as many deaths as smoking. It costs the UK economy £7.4billion per year including £0.9billion to the NHS alone. (Public Health England)

Other high profile sport and leisure community assets across Suffolk include Ipswich Town Football Club, who host activities for children and younger people within the football club grounds, at the club training facilities on the outskirts of Ipswich and more widely. 

The Most Active County Partnership is a collaboration of local authorities, public sector bodies, the voluntary sector and private companies that have committed to work collaboratively to bring added value to the good work that many organisations across Suffolk are already doing to address inactivity.

One example of the work of the Partnership is the Most Active County Outreach running programme which aims to support individuals who are inactive (doing less than 30 minutes exercise per week) into regular and sustained participation. It provides them with an opportunity to get active through progressive programmes of training and support, with the goal of taking part in a mass participation event. In 2021, 95% of participants were still active at 6 months, whilst over 9 in 10 said that their participation in the programme continues to have a positive impact on their health and fitness. All participants would recommend the programme: ‘Inspiring, enjoyable, epic! A fantastic programme run by a fantastic team of people’ (Public Health and Communities Analysis).

Underpinning the work of the Most Active County Partnership are a series of strategies and policies at local, district and borough and county council level, including planning and design, health and wellbeing, sport and leisure, open space and wider community development, and a thriving physical activity and sports sector including leisure operators, voluntary and community sector, clubs and societies, healthy lifestyle services and the Active Partnership for Suffolk.

High streets and village amenities

High streets have traditionally formed the hub of small and large towns. However, a widespread decline in high streets nationally, even preceding the COVID-19 pandemic which undoubtedly played a further part in their decline, has been witnessed as online shopping, reduced incomes and other factors change the appearance of the high street in the modern era. 

In July 2021 the Government launched a strategy to regenerate high streets and town centres. Build Back Better High Streets is a long-term plan to support the development of high streets into ‘thriving places to work, visit and live’, through 5 key priorities:

  • Breathing new life into empty buildings
  • Supporting high street businesses
  • Improving the public realm
  • Creating safe and clean spaces
  • Celebrating pride in local communities

Whilst acknowledging the changes that have occurred as familiar retailers disappear from town centres, and as others move to online retail only, the strategy notes the opportunities that come with adapting to these changes. It suggests the possibility of derelict buildings being turned into residential homes, restaurants, or locations from which public services could be delivered.

Part of the strategy is a £3.6 billion Towns Fund, of which Ipswich and Lowestoft are both recipients, of £25 million and £24.9 million respectively. The money made available to towns across the country will fund community regeneration projects, such as repurposing empty shops, creating new public spaces, and the creation of new digital enterprises and learning centres.

In addition, in April 2021 Ipswich Vision partners launched a new strategy for the future revival of Ipswich town centre and district shopping parades. It aims for better use of local town centres not only by people living within the town centre, but also for those who do not.  

A sense of community is at the heart of the strategy, with the intention of ensuring local areas are protected for current and future generations. High streets have a role in building communities because they already contain a range of meeting places. Cafés, for example, can provide formal and informal meeting places; in Lowestoft a town centre café is run as a social enterprise, promoting social inclusion and providing people with wellbeing and employment services, in addition to helping those in need find accommodation.

The financial viability of running services in rural areas is often a factor affecting the presence of village community assets, such as post offices, pubs, and general stores. In addition, finding individuals to take on these responsibilities, whether as commercial businesses or working in a volunteer capacity can be challenging. In some cases, it has been necessary for local communities to come together to ‘buy’ and run local amenities in order to safeguard local services. For example, there are eight community pubs across Suffolk, each run by a group of volunteers that enable these community hubs to continue to exist. 

Village and town halls are often used for a wide variety of community activities. They can bring together members of the local area to join in sports activities, jumble sales, art and craft events, entertainment, and a range of different groups and clubs that may use halls as a regular meeting place. Churches and church halls are another community asset that offer an opportunity for communities to congregate.

Green space and blue space

Communities can arise from a shared interest in the natural environment. 87% of respondents to a 2018 survey conducted by The Art Fund stated they go for a walk or some fresh air as a way of dealing with anxiety or stress.

Suffolk has a plethora of places to achieve this; there is an abundance of green and blue (i.e. coastal areas) space and natural environment for residents and tourists to improve their health and wellbeing: parks and green spaces in towns; 50 miles of coastline, the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in the county (Suffolk Coast and Heaths in the east which covers 155 square miles - equivalent to 10% of the county, and Dedham Vale to the south covering 35 square miles of Essex and Suffolk lowland); and the rivers that cross the county.

The county has 12,500 acres of heathland landscapes and 12,500 acres of forest land where the public have the right to roam. County Wildlife Sites (CWS) play a key role in the conservation of Suffolk’s biodiversity by recognising the high value of a site for wildlife. Suffolk has over 900 county Wildlife Sites, amounting to 19,200 hectares and covering 5% of the county; many are of regional or national importance. 

The Suffolk Coastal and Heaths AONB contains 155 square miles of tranquil and unspoilt landscape including wildlife-rich estuaries, ancient heaths, windswept shingle beaches and historic towns and villages, from Lowestoft in the north to Felixstowe in the south. The Suffolk Coast Path follows the Suffolk Heritage Coast and runs along river and sea walls and across marsh, heath and cliffs. It connects with the Sandlings Walk, as well as the Essex Way and Stour Valley Path (via the Stour and Orwell Walk).

While there is evidence that living in greener areas can reduce health inequalities, access and proximity to green space are distributed unequally. People living in the most deprived communities are ten times less likely to live in the greenest areas than people who live in the least deprived communities. The most affluent 20% of wards in England have five times the amount of green space than the most deprived 10% of wards. People living in most deprived communities are ten times less likely to live in the greenest areas than people who live in the least deprived communities.

Parkrun organise free, weekly, 5km timed runs that take place around the world. These events take place in pleasant parkland surroundings and are aimed at people of all ages and abilities. In 2012, the first Suffolk parkrun took place in Ipswich. Since then, parkruns have been organised countywide, with there being 18 different locations currently - 5 of which are junior parkruns aimed specifically at children - and which attract on average 2,300 runners per week. The most popular parkruns are those held in Bury St Edmunds, Felixstowe, Ipswich, Kesgrave and Lowestoft (Public Health and Communities Analysis). For more details see:

A collaboration between parkrun UK and the Royal College of General Practitioners is encouraging the prescribing of active lifestyles to patients and practice staff to improve their health and wellbeing. The impact of parkrun on peoples’ lives is outlined in this case study.

Neighbourhood planning gives communities direct power to develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood and shape the development and growth of their local area. Neighbourhood Plans provide a significant opportunity for communities to recognise, protect and improve local environmental assets. There is great scope for benefiting the environment from designating green spaces to establishing ‘green corridors’ by linking open spaces and improving local watercourses.

People as community assets

People - individually or as part of a group - can also be a community asset. The COVID-19 pandemic saw people across the country come together to support each other, for example, through shopping for those that were shielding during lockdown.

More formal organisation of people as community assets can be via volunteering, as discussed in the sections on libraries and museums above. But volunteers play a part in many aspects of Suffolk life, from sports clubs and art organisations, churches and community centres, schools, hospitals and community safety. Suffolk’s Volunteering Strategy, which is endorsed by the Suffolk’s Health and Wellbeing Board, emphasises the benefits and cohesiveness in a community that result when people volunteer.

Youth Focus is a youth development programme provided by Community Action Suffolk and funded by Suffolk County Council and the Collaborative Communities Board. It aims to ensure that Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) organisations can access resources, support and training (covering youth work, mental health awareness, safeguarding, fundraising, supporting volunteers and more) to help build capacity in the youth sector and sustain existing support and provision for young people.

The Youth Focus programme recognises the crucial role people within local communities – shopkeepers, youth workers, sports coaches, neighbours – have in supporting local young people to develop a sense of belonging as well as encouraging them to aspire, thrive and grow: ‘…the value of positive interaction with trusted adults cannot be under-estimated. Positive relationships and community connections raise self esteem, build confidence and resilience’.

What are the key inequalities?

Communities arise in and across localities, and their emergence is usually based on a common factor whether that is an activity, interest or geographical area. However unequal access to community assets – museums, galleries, libraries, leisure activities, green and blue space, etc. – is one of the key influences on inequalities in this area. As noted above for example, people living in the most deprived communities are ten times less likely to live in the greenest areas than people who live in the least deprived communities, and therefore have less or restricted access to green space.

Even where access to specific communities is not a concern, the cost of attending some community events and activities is prohibitive for some people. With the cost of living increasing, the pressure on families - particularly those on low incomes - to be able to afford even basic necessities is squeezed, leaving limited financial resources to attend, for example, some leisure activities that would benefit their physical and mental wellbeing.

Public Health Scotland notes that the health protecting and health harming factors of communities are not equally distributed, with those living in deprived areas less likely to experience the positive benefits that communities can offer. In addition they are more likely to experience the negative aspects of communities.

Inequality of access and cost of living pressures are therefore increasing health inequalities across the county, as those in more deprived areas face greater challenges and fewer opportunities to improve their physical and mental wellbeing compared to those living in less deprived areas.

Further information

The Association for Suffolk Museums are an independent charity and membership body which brings together over sixty volunteer and professionally staffed museums in Suffolk to share expertise and resources across the county. The website contains information about Suffolk museums, projects and how to get involved.

Suffolk Libraries are a not for profit, independent, charitable organisation set up in August 2012 to run the library service for the benefit of the people of Suffolk. All libraries in Suffolk are run by Suffolk Libraries. Information about Suffolk Libraries and the services they offer can be found on their website.

The Most Active County Partnership is a collaboration of local authorities, public sector bodies, the voluntary sector and private companies that have committed to work collaboratively to bring added value to the good work that many organisations across Suffolk are already doing to address inactivity.

Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion (OCSI) have developed a Community Needs Index that considers the social and cultural factors than can contribute to poorer life outcomes. The index comprises 19 indicators across three domains: Civic Assets, Connectedness, and Active and Engaged Community. The index has been produced at ward level, and data is available in Local Insight.

Suffolk County Council is supportive of neighbourhood planning as a way for local communities to have a greater say in where they live and work. Guidance about neighbourhood planning is available.