Matt Leach: what does it take to improve a place?

Early lessons from Big Local -passion mobilised

 

The aim at the outset was clear – to target funding at those areas which had missed out on Lottery funding in the past, but to do so in a way that would build community confidence and capacity to address the root causes of their missing out in the first place. The intention was that, by committing money for the long term and putting it directly in the hands of local residents, Big Local areas would be better able to tackle their own problems. It would also enable them to compete for funding on equal terms with other areas that might already have the civic infrastructure and social capital needed to underpin community-led solutions to the problems they faced.

It’s all coming together

Six years later, we’re at the point in the programme where it is all coming together. All Big Local areas have established partnerships bringing together local residents to make decisions about their neighbourhoods. Those partnerships have plans setting out shared priorities, many of them ambitious and distinctive and levels of spending are reaching a peak as Big Local areas gain in confidence and experience.

Across the country we see Big Local areas moving from tentatively trialing micro-grants, through medium-sized commissioned initiatives and on towards taking on major projects, often working in partnership with other agencies, in ways that would have been impossible only five years ago. And, as they gain credibility through their growing delivery record, many Big Local areas are becoming increasingly important advocates and influencers for their areas, brokering relationships and championing the interests of their communities.

Whilst Big Local is a single programme, its commitment to radical devolution has enabled very different approaches to emerge community by community, reflecting local priorities, assets and opportunities. Lawrence Weston, a Big Local on the outskirts of Bristol, has spearheaded its own regeneration, using Big Local money to underwrite ambitious development plans across their estate,making sure local residents benefit from new homes and energy projects coming into their area. In the Arches Local in Chatham, local residents have established themselves as both community champions and custodians of a local environment that is finally improving as a result of residents’ collective effort – transforming local greenspace, and tackling pollution arising from poor maintenance of the railway arches that provide the name for their area.

On the Welsh Farm Estate in Birmingham, we’ve seen local residents championing and initiating work to improve local greenspace, promote enterprise and transform their area through arts and culture, including an ambitious partnership with the Birmingham Reparatory Theatre. In Newington in Kent, we’ve seen a community come together to rebrand their entire area, as part of wider work celebrating a positive sense of identity and place.

What is striking is the extent to which a relatively straightforward if radical approach to funding – devolving power, resources and control to a community level – has generated such a wide range of different approaches and outcomes. Given time, money, trust and support, local communities have been able to harness local energy and initiative, thrash out shared priorities, focus attention and effort, and start on a journey to transform their areas in ways that reflect their individual circumstances and needs. This is a very different way of tackling entrenched issues in communities; not the cookie-cutter strategic objectives of external funders, the relentless cult of attempting to artificially replicate “what works” irrespective of context, or the perilously short timescales of too many publicly funded programmes, but genuine bottom up, resident-driven change.

It’s been an astonishing learning journey for Local Trust, Big Local areas and their partners. What started out as a community-led catch-up fund, fusing the vision of the short-lived Big Society project with the need to address the challenge housing estates that spend millions on scratchcards but got nothing back by way of grants, has become something much more important and interesting, with lessons of relevance to national and local government and communities themselves.

I recently visited a West Midlands Big Local, with the Chief Executive of their local authority and we were taken on a tour of the area. We saw a place that – five years into their Big Local programme – had transformed itself through a mix of local voluntary endeavour, small amounts of Big Local funding and a creative partnership with a local authority that had itself started to reorganize its services around a recognition of the importance of place. Pathways had been cleared, environmental improvements delivered, issues around litter and minor vandalism addressed. As a result, not only was the place a much nicer place to live, but minor crime and antisocial behavior had dropped to the extent that police and PCSOs no longer needed to be based there.

It immediately raised a question. If committing relatively small amounts of money to communities and trusting them to get on with brokering and commissioning their own solutions to local problems can be quite so effective, why aren’t we doing it everywhere?

At a time when local authority budgets are pressed ever harder, and councillors and officers struggle to deliver even statutory services, might one way forward be to explore the potential that might come from allowing communities to take the lead in prioritizing what they feel needs tackling, and giving them the resources they need to commission their own solutions?

The key is long-term commitment

If we are to even tentatively go down that route, we will need public agencies brave enough to match the commitment of the Big Lottery Fund in 2010-12. To release the potential of communities, long-term commitment is key. The Big Local timeframe stretches over 10-15 years, and once the money is committed to an area there is no conditionality and no going back. And alongside that money is a willingness to give communities space and support to develop the skills and confidence they need; a huge tolerance of different approaches; an acceptance of the need to allow people to take risks; and a recognition that communities, if they are growing in confidence, need to be allowed to make mistakes, review, learn and recover from them. Significant change in any place takes time and has to be founded on and around the people who live there – something that is too often absent from shorter-term, project-based initiatives.

One important thing to bear in mind is that the relationship that Local Trust – and Renaisi as a delivery partner – has with its areas is very different from the relationship that funders typically have with beneficiaries. The partnerships decide how to spend their money. There are very few strings attached. Big Local, Local Trust and the small army of community development advisors managed by Renaisi are there primarily to provide support, not to advise on what local residents to choose to do or second guess their decisions. Accountability – to the extent that it exists in a conventional sense within what is a radically devolved programme – is from the bottom up not the top down: are we providing enough support; to what extent are the experiences of our areas reflected in the services that we offer to them.

Making a difference?

Finally, and this is important at a time of constrained resources and relentless austerity, the Big Local approach seems to be telling us something about the cost-effectiveness of community-led solutions. The £1m in investment available to each Big Local area over 10-15 years appears to both make all the difference and very little difference. In financial terms, year on year, Big Local can amount to not much more than £20 per household per year. But its value goes well beyond that.   But it is enough to make all the difference, because it is what brings people together in the first place; help to secure a place at the tables where important local issues are being discussed; and provide leverage, enabling areas to raise funding from other sources. It makes very little difference because what it can buy is of secondary importance to the impact that the programme can have on the confidence and skills of local people and the value of the community time, commitment and passion mobilised.   That is what is most needed to transform place. A third of the way through the Big Local experiment, we are just starting to learn quite how powerful that sort of value, when released, can be.

About the author:

Matt is Chief Executive of Local Trust. Matt Leach was formerly CEO of HACT, the social housing sector’s ideas and innovation agency. Prior to joining HACT in 2011, Matt’s roles included CEO of civil society funding agency Capacitybuilders, associate director of the ResPublica think tank and director at the Housing Corporation.

In 2012, Renaisi was part of the consortium that created Local Trust, the charitable vehicle for delivery of Big Local – at the time, and still, the biggest ever Lottery-funded endowment.  Since then, as a key delivery partner of Local Trust, Renaisi has been an integral part of the Big Local story, with a ringside seat on a unique, ambitious and radical experiment – to provide 150 local communities with £1m each to spend on improving their area, with all decisions on how the money should be spent, and on what, devolved to local residents.

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