The organisation began in 1968 as Lewisham Council of Social Service (LCCS). The chair was John Gulland, who also held a position at Goldmiths. It was grant-aided by Lewisham Council, but also raised funds in other ways, including donations by Deed of Covenant and proceeds from a charity Christmas card shop in Catford.
The 1972 annual report, ‘Because There Are Gaps’ shows the organisation’s many activities. These included the publication of the ‘Bulletin’, an information newsletter with a circulation of 1,500, support for the Mind Campaign, and a pre-retirement course ‘Retire and Enjoy it’. LCCS also supported groups, including a Social Workers Lunch Club at Ladywell Baths, Family Counselling Project, Deptford Forum and Voluntary Workers’ Burueau.
In 1973, LCCS changed its name to Voluntary Action Lewisham (VAL) with a mission “to work with, as well as for Lewisham residents” and to provide services, represent and support communities and voluntary organisations, volunteering and generate new ideas. VAL was based at 120 Rushey Green, Catford, where it remained until 2017.
In the 1976 annual report VAL’s participation in the launch of ALCARAF features as “one of the highlights of the year”. VAL was a member of ALCARAF and involved in their campaign activities. ALCARAF was one of the many organisations to which that VAL gave practical advice and support. Also as “one of the broadest based and active antiracist groups in the country” it provided an excellent example of how VAL could “provide ways organisations can meet together to share experiences and to talk about ways of acting together to express views.” ALCARAF also shared an office with VAL at 120 Rushey Green.
VAL work during the 1980s was carried out against the background of: unemployment; cuts to services; the struggle women’s equality; the arrival of refugees and the problem of racism, not only in the wider community, but also in the voluntary sector. Work was carried out “against a background of cuts, more cuts and even more cuts”. In addition to VAL’s work with grassroots organisations, a good deal of the organisation’s time had to be spent “writing and discussing, shouting and marching…to prove that the work of the voluntary sector matters and must not go under”.
In 1980, VAL produced a report on the resettlement of refugees in Lewisham. The report was not circulated as “it highlighted the confusion that had surrounded the arrival and resettlement of refugees in the borough”. During this period, VAL had a worker affiliated to work with the Vietnamese community.
VAL also had a worker affiliated to Pagnell Street Centre. Since the early 1970s, VAL had had worked with the centre and the Moonshot Youth Club that was based there, assisting with the management of the project.
During the 1980s, VAL led a working party on ‘Ethnic Minority Participation in the Voluntary Sector’, to look at the under-representation of black workers, managers and beneficiaries.
During the 1980s, VAL received funding from the newly established Greater London Council (GLC) and introduced ITEC courses (computer technology) for unemployed people and supported the production of a women’s training directory, ran courses for black workers and refugees and English language support. VAL also worked with Victim Support, befriending schemes, and ran a volunteer driving scheme. VAL provided quarterly ‘Action News’ which included information about many campaigns of the period.
At the beginning of the 1990s, VAL’s key areas of focus were training, advice and information; communication between the voluntary and statutory sectors; the volunteer bureau and voluntary action drivers scheme (VADS).
VAL was involved in the launch of Lewisham Community Care Forum, when “Community Care was at the top of the agenda”. By 1992, VAL had employed a Community Care Development Worker. VAL also developed a small groups project, acting as a resource for developing groups which included, “refugees, women’s self-help, black and minority ethnic, gay and lesbian groups and mother tongue schools”.
During the 1990s, VAL celebrated the impact of volunteering, engaged in outreach projects, surveyed their contributors and created new ways for people to get involved. In 1994, VAL attended a conference in Tokyo and returned with new ideas for supporting voluntary organisations and training courses in how to manage them.
VAL also launched a volunteer recognition scheme and counselling became the most popular form of volunteering, but the volunteer drivers’ scheme became difficult to fund.
In 1998, VAL employed a development worker for larger groups and appointed a Regeneration Officer to help projects bid for central government funding.
2000 saw the development of the Lewisham Compact, an agreement between Lewisham Council and local voluntary and community organisations about how they worked together. VAL convened the steering group and the Compact aimed to enhance the effectiveness of the council and the voluntary and community sector in meeting the needs of the community.
2002 saw the launch of the Lewisham Community Network, the borough’s Community Empowerment Network, that VAL hosted until the network ended in 2009. Also in 2002, VAL launched the Community Development Workers’ Forum and embraced online communications by launching its website. 2003 saw a revamp of Grapevine, VAL’s printed newsletter that continued until 2015.
2007 was a turbulent year for funding and VAL lost a third of its workforce of 18 staff that year. Fortunately, these losses were offset in the following year by a successful bid for five-year funding for the Community Research and Information Bureau (CRIB). This was based at St Laurence Centre in Catford.
Long-term funding meant that VAL was able to deliver a sustained programme of development support and one-to-one support to address the needs of individual organisations with governance, management and performance management.
In 2015, VAL and Public Health hosted the Lewisham Food Summit. This led to the formation of Good Food Lewisham to tackle food poverty and diet-related ill health, by improving access to affordable, healthy food and supporting local food projects.
In 2016, The Way Ahead report shaped the future direction for organisations like VAL. Its focus is on ‘co-production’, in which communities have an equal voice in identifying need, finding solutions and having a voice in decision-making. VAL also became a partner of the newly formed Lewisham Connections Consortium, organised to improve and develop the services offered to vulnerable adults. In 2017, VAL moved from its Catford home of 50 years to manage the Mulberry Centre in New Cross. The vision for the centre is that it becomes a hub for social action, where people can get engaged in voluntary action and develop strong partnerships and new ways of working to benefit people in Lewisham.