Miriam Levin: what does it take to improve a place?

 Empower the people

Another way of framing the question is: if a place is improving, how can we make sure that the people living there benefit from the improvements and have a measure of control over what’s happening?

We can all cite the regeneration schemes lauded as great successes, where the area was undoubtedly improved, with glittering new architecture and a place serving decent coffee. But we also know that in many of those schemes, they did not improve the lot of the original communities, many of whom have all but disappeared, scattered to cheaper suburbs further out, away from the bonds that supported and sustained them.

So to me, improving a place is about empowering the people that live there and creating strong communities that have a sense of control over what’s happening in their neighbourhoods.

Recognising that the most effective movements that strengthen people come from the grassroots and are not imposed from above, we have to tread a careful line here at the Office of Civil Society (OCS), which is part of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Our aim is to help create the conditions that enable individuals and communities to flourish, without crushing them beneath the heavy hand of government.

In the Youth and Social Action Team at OCS, we do this by funding and managing social action programmes that are about empowering people, enabling them to come together to take action on issues that matter to them. We see social action as positive and practical ways in which people can do something for the common good. This can be anything from campaigning on a local issue to helping out a neighbour, from getting involved in local democracy to young people volunteering at their local hospital.

We have a tendency in government to roll out policies and programmes nationally without too much regard for the details that make Crawley different from Croydon different from Crosby. But there is a move now to try to do things differently. At DCMS we’re starting to take a place-based approach to policy-making. This means working in a way that responds to the uniqueness of a place – the opposite of a ‘one size fits all approach’. It is about understanding the demographic, historical and cultural specificity of each place and tailoring approaches to work there.

We’re putting this into practise with the Place Based Social Action Programme (PBSA), a 7-year, £4.5million programme we’re running jointly with the Big Lottery Fund, and evaluated by Renaisi. PBSA aims to create positive change in places through enabling local civil society organisations, citizens, businesses, service providers and the local authority to work together to create a shared vision for the future of their area, and address local priorities through social action.

It’s early days – with the 20 places to be supported through Phase 1 only announced in March, but I’m confident that enabling each place to determine its own priorities, strengths and challenges, and figure out how to deal with them, is the best way to create better places and empowered communities.

The other main strand of our Social Action work is the Community Organising Expansion Programme, which is delivered through Community Organisers Ltd. Community organising is the work of bringing people together to take action around their common concerns and build positive social and political change. Community organisers reach out and listen, connect and motivate people to build their collective power.

6,500 community organisers were trained in the first programme between 2011-2015. In this second phase from 2017-2020, we are training another 3,500 people in community organising.

All of which is just words and numbers. Words and numbers that I have written many times before for ministerial briefings, in answer to parliamentary questions or in the department’s annual report. None of them get across what training a resident in community organising actually means.

What it actually means is this:

  • D became involved with his local Social Action Hub after the Community Organiser saw him tending his garden and stopped to talk. He mentioned that he was a trained cook, and would love to do something for the community. A week later the chef responsible for feeding the guests at the local Street Party cancelled, and David was invited to fill the role.
  • D worked for six hours at the BBQ, feeding 500 people. Since then, he has attended every Street Party Committee meeting, despite having never attended a meeting before.
  • He then attended the Introduction to Community Organising training course at the Hub, which inspired him to engage in further listening and connecting with local people. As a response to requests for more activities for young people, in October he ran a ‘Halloween Cook-Off’ for young children in the community. The Community Organiser also connected him with a new local community enterprise where he secured an interview to be the café manager at their new community café.
  • D has been empowered to listen, grow in confidence and take action to improve his community. He has been given the support and skills to develop his own projects, which have made real improvements to both his life and the lives of local families. He is now the regular caterer for Social Action Hub courses, supporting other people to gain the same skills and confidence.

D says: ‘People normally don’t give you opportunities without knowing you. You have showed me how trust can work in this community’.

This story, and hundreds more like it, are the building blocks of strong communities, where people have been empowered to take action and realised that collectively they have the power to challenge authority, tackle injustice and create something better. This is what it takes to improve a place.

 

About the author:

Miriam is Head of Community Action and Giving in the Youth and Social Action Team, Office for Civil Society.

Renaisi is working with the OCS on an evaluation of the Place Based Social Action Programme, and as part of the learning consortium supporting the government and Big Lottery led, #iWill fund.

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