The following section offers a brief overview of:
Thinking back over 2015/16, all of the 15 areas involved in Our Bigger Story are now delivering against their original plan or, in the case of Three Parishes and Ramsey for example, have reached the stage of refreshing their original plans. How each area is working towards the four Big Local outcomes differs. There are those that have:
Delivery mechanisms also vary: from small grants (Radstock) through to open tendering (Revoe) and service level agreements (Hanwell). Further, their ambitions vary from large scale physical change in Lawrence Weston to more small scale, incremental steps in Three Parishes.
As noted, the 15 areas are all very different, not only in approach, but in the scale of the challenges they face: from Revoe (amongst the ten most deprived wards in the country) through to those where poverty is a feature (and sometimes hidden) amidst relative affluence.
In some cases, there is evidence that Big Local has been a catalyst for change. This applies to physical and environmental improvements (Barrowcliff). In others it is around stimulating new activities or building a stronger sense of community (Bountagu and Hanwell). In some areas, progress has been slower and partnerships have struggled to turn their original vision into delivery on the ground: ‘...we need to be patient as the wheels of positive change are slow moving. Things don’t change overnight.’ (Partnership member)
The flip side of acting as a change agent has been, in the face of continuing austerity measures, attempts by Big Local partnerships to protect services and community assets which are under threat – in particular, community buildings, play and youth services.
Again, as anticipated, progress has not been linear. Periods of intense activity in some areas have then been followed by a slower pace of change – and vice versa. Despite this, partners repeatedly talk of the Big Local, and the Big Local approach, becoming more embedded in the community:
‘Big Local is paving the way for change because it is resident owned and residents are making the choices about change. It is not just agencies parachuting in.’Local Trust
In terms of resident-led change and the ‘light touch’ approach, this is not a new message. However, Big Local is qualitatively different to previous community led change initiatives. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Neighbourhoods Programme was four years. Whilst New Deal for Communities (NDC) ran for 10 years, with the original intention of being resident led, the final programme evaluation explicitly comments on low levels of community engagement with NDC Partnerships and the extent to which the initiative became agency-led.
As a programme lasting at least ten years, Big Local begs three big questions:
The first two questions will inform the focus of future evaluation. We begin to address the third question below.
A big ask?
‘A million pounds over 10 years is canny but it takes an awful lot of energy from an awful lot of people to do that.’Partnership member
As noted throughout the report, the principle of resident-led change was particularly valued. However, perhaps the biggest challenge for the Big Local approach is that it is a ‘big ask’ of local residents:
‘I don’t think that they realised the responsibility they were placing on individuals and people in these deprived areas. People don’t just struggle with maths and English. They struggle with personal relations, there’s mental health issues, broken families, the normal drug and alcohol issues...'Partnership member
This quote, from and about Revoe, is true of Blackpool and may be an example from one extreme in the spectrum of Big Local areas, but it does reflect a wider issue.
The ‘big ask’ is more complex than simply time demands. The learning necessary to manage a one million community-based programme can be very demanding and technical, e.g. finding out about planning permissions, tendering processes, asset transfer and Pre-Qualifying Questionnaires to take on the management of local services. And it also raises questions around whether Local Trust’s aspirations that Big Local partnerships will broaden activism in their areas and share decision making powers beyond their formal and informal structures, are too big an ‘ask’ of residents. What has emerged over time is that, whereas the programme has encouraged residents to take risks, try new approaches and spread active involvement across the whole Big local area, partnerships have on the whole tended to ‘play it safe’. This applies both to governance, where traditional structures have by and large been put in place, and delivery – with tried and tested interventions being adopted. Given that the Big Local approach is new to many people, and given the responsibility that partnership members feel for being accountable and being seen to be accountable for the money, this has been perhaps, inevitable.
Furthermore, the scale of expectations and responsibilities also plays out at an emotional level. Whilst there is a history of tensions and conflicts in earlier area-based initiatives, this has often been between residents and paid officials. As a resident-led initiative, tensions and conflict in Big Local areas can be qualitatively different. Conflict is not between local people and some remote authority, but, potentially, between near neighbours. How are these tensions and conflicts managed and resolved, without individuals either leaving the partnership or, indeed, the local area?
‘There have been power struggles between some residents…. There is a lot of passion and excitement. But in meetings when things are delayed or not going to plan that can spill over into anger and frustration.’Community Worker
Residents take their responsibilities very seriously and this creates a pressure to ‘deliver’ which can weigh heavily on partnership members. Residents active on partnerships talked repeatedly of this being a steep ‘learning curve’, particularly in the transition from plan development to delivery.
Finally, a recurrent theme in interviews was that the Big Local approach required a change in the mind-set of those active on partnerships, in grass roots groups and the wider community:
‘Big Local is asset-based community development – building local capacity to respond to local needs, but it’s a big step. The view is that others should sort this out rather than doing it ourselves.’
‘Overcoming dependency and a paternalistic society that we are still in in [names Big Local area]…How to get people responsible for their own community and not about what they are doing but what we are doing. Getting beyond the ‘great they’ that are to blame for things [e.g. the Council.’Partnership members
Being involved in Big Local partnerships is demanding and, as noted, requires residents to manage, or ‘balance’, often completing agendas and demands. So what is it that keeps them going?
Positive experiences have been repeatedly mentioned in terms of building personal confidence, developing new skills and knowledge or simply the social aspects of partnerships. In some instances, local residents have moved into being employed by Big Local.
‘Before [Big Local] nobody even knew my name. Now people stop in the street and talk to me….and smile.’
‘People used to dismiss what I said. Big Local does not do that. It makes you feel valued and not just dismissed as...silly...with nothing to say. That’s made a big difference for me.’Partnership members
Linked to the ‘big ask’ is the issue of legacy. As Big Locals have evolved, the issues of sustainability and legacy have moved up the agenda:
‘Having the next three year plan approved…focuses the mind on what we would like to end up with after the Big Local project.’Partnership member
There are those for whom legacy is about cultural change or building the skills and confidence of residents to take action, with some looking to their LTOs continuing as the local strategic body which can support resident action. Others such as Lawrence Weston are looking at neighbourhood planning as a way forward, managing assets and leaving behind a sustainable organisation. Others are discussing incorporation of the partnership as a legal entity as a means of securing and managing future resources, something not necessarily envisaged in the Big Local approach.
Looking forward, legacy will become an increasingly important issue over the coming three years as some areas move towards having used all their Big Local money. How the process is managed is likely to bring an added layer of complexity to decision making processes in Big Local areas: what to stop funding or what to prioritise in areas where there are increasing, and competing, needs with ever fewer resources. As Local Trust reflected in an evaluation discussion:
‘So that’s what we’ve got to prepare for, because there will be – the end is in sight, there’ll be nothing else after this piece of funding has finished and there’ll be – they won’t have achieved everything that they wanted to achieve with their money and there’ll still be ….a shedload of problems in those areas which obviously have not been addressed or recovered and there’ll be some of those big aspirations that they’d had at the beginning like dealing with poverty, transforming the local economy that basically haven’t happened. And so they’ll be not very happy.’Local trust
As discussed in Section 4, this raises the question of what it is reasonable to expect areas to achieve with £1 million over a decade.
In thinking about the future, areas have reached a point of what could be described as a fragile maturity. Fragile in the sense that partnerships in the delivery phase are reliant on a few people – and in some cases, reliant on a handful of already overstretched activists. Maturity in the sense that partnerships are more confident in taking difficult decisions. The danger of that growing maturity (and a danger that partnerships are aware of) is that the partnership becomes seen as a clique which, un-intentionally, has the effect of excluding new members.
Perhaps the most significant emerging question at this point in time is, ‘what, fundamentally, is Big Local?’ For some it is about structures and governance – with partnerships becoming incorporated bodies with a view to sustainability. There are those for whom Big Local is just another funding stream that will come to an end and the challenge is to maximise opportunities now, while that money is available. Alternatively, partners talk about Big Local as a potential catalyst for broader community change - an initiative which is actually about fostering a culture in which local people feel (whatever structures are, or are not, left behind, whatever funding is, or is not, available) they have a greater influence and control over their lives and whereby their community is, indeed, an even better place to live. This aspiration raises a wider, important question for the future: does Big Local have the appetite and scope to become a wider movement – over and above the work in individual areas?
This, in turn, is a challenge for the future evaluation activity of Our Bigger Story. What has been built up over the last two years is a greater understanding of how Big Local partnerships are operating and how they are implementing the aspirations of resident led change. Further, there is a growing body of evidence of the changes partnerships and delivery partners are effecting for individuals within their communities. The challenge for the evaluation will be to unpick the wider ripple effects of Big Local, as an ethos and way of working on the wider community, on those people who are neither active on partnerships nor accessing directly those services supported by Big Local funding, and on the wider array of institutions influencing a community such as public bodies and private sector interests.