5

Full chapter:

Balancing acts

Balancing the Big Local vision with realities on the ground

In many ways the following discussion appears to echo the findings of previous research indicating that ‘most areas are failing to retain [a] ‘golden thread’ between their activities and their vision’ (R4C, 2016: 4) pdf=293kb. It is this connection, or potential lack of connection, between the everyday realities and longer term goals of Big Local that this section explores further.

Resident-led change, as initially envisioned by Local Trust, was never meant to be a neat, linear, initiative. Areas develop, change – or struggle – but at their own pace. In this Big Local is in stark contrast with previous neighbourhood change and regeneration programmes in that areas are not driven by top down targets, annual spend and externally imposed goals and outcomes (see for example New Deal for Communities pdf=770kb (Batty et al 2010) and the Single Regeneration Budget pdf=610kb (Rhodes et al undated). Big Local is therefore ‘’Inside out’, rather than agencies or someone outside the community seeking to engage the community – ‘outside in’’ . This is where Big Local is qualitatively different to now historic Area Based Initiatives:

...didn’t want areas to be dependent on people that were doing things for them, because in other programmes you can fully resource that and then the programme finishes and everybody walks away, and I’ve had that feedback from people as well on other programmes – including New Deal where people were like ‘The money is here; it’s great’. The minute that stops everybody goes, all these workers disappear because their salaries aren’t being paid and then we’re just left and if it hasn’t increased our skills actually we’re not much better off.’

Local Trust

This ‘resident to resident’ focus is reflected in:

  • the pace of change in Big Local areas: some have made rapid progress and, within the first two years of becoming operational, have achieved major changes in their local community – the development, for example, of the Play Park in Barrowcliff. Others, after a promising start have become ‘bogged down’ in the minutiae of project management or the legal issues of incorporation.
  • scope and ambition of the original Big Local plans: some had a large-scale, strategic, vision for their area already in place before Big Local– the transformation of Lawrence Weston being a case in point- or at least long held ambitions, e.g. the skatepark in Grassland Hasmoor. For others, that vision was perhaps less ambitious, but grounded in the views of local residents and in the spirit of ‘starting where people are at’, have adopted an approach of incremental change though a range of smaller scale projects. Indeed, those that have started small scale (such as Three Parishes, and Radstock) have valued the experience gained in their early years of this approach and have started to become more ambitious whereas others, particularly where there were highly ambitious plans for matched funding, have had to scale back their ambitions and activities.

What is evident, however, is that partnerships have at times struggled to translate their early visions into delivery on the ground, particularly where those plans were ambitious and partnerships were attempting to meet multiple and often competing goals. The criticism, therefore, that Big Local areas have a ‘disconnect’ between vision and activity is perhaps rather harsh. Even ‘many small activities’ and actions in the community can have a substantial impact on peoples’ lives – and deaths, as noted in the Bountagu example in Section 2.

Where Our Bigger Story has observed and recorded local plan reviews (see for example the detailed discussion on this in the series of ‘Partnerships in Conversation’ films or, specifically, the plan review in Ramsey) residents have been acutely aware of the need to assess activities against their longer term objectives. They are also concerned that the day to day pressures of programme management have diverted energies from those longer term strategic objectives. What is important however, as Big Locals evolve, is that that ‘golden-thread’ connecting strategy and activity is sustained and built upon.

Balancing community needs and community wants

The time allowed for, and resource allocated to, initial community profiling and plan development was appreciated by partnership members and noted as different to other funding regimes with time limited consultation and short time-scales for bid preparation. However, the process raised a number of questions in the transition between visioning and delivery:

  • Are the views expressed by those consulted reflective of actual needs, or only of what people thought others needed?
  • How do Big Local areas respond to the needs of those ‘quiet voices’ who could be ‘the least heard’ in the planning and delivery process
  • Are Big Local areas responding to wants rather than needs? And to what extent are they addressing the underlying problems (identified in community profiles and the IVAR foresighting report – 2014 pdf=760kb) or addressing ‘surface’ issues:

    ‘[I wanted Big Local] to address some deep problems here and not just cosmetic change... to make real changes in [names Big Local] and not just be hanging baskets.’

The needs versus wants issue is illustrated in the case of Radstock. In the consultation process, adults identified that children ‘needed’ more supervised play provision. What young people said they ‘wanted’ was safe spaces for unsupervised play.

The distinction is not always that clear cut. Partnerships may feel they need to respond to community wants – to be seen to be active and doing something in the short term (e.g. environmental improvements). For some, agonising over whether something was a want or an underlying need could be a distraction from actual delivery. For still others, a particular ‘want’ in the community had been one for so long that what was now ‘needed’ was a response. For example, both Barrowcliff and Grassland Hasmoor had been working for at least a decade to bring about a play park and skate park in their respective areas. What Big Local had enabled was a response to those long expressed requests.

Throughout the research, another tension that has emerged related to how Big Local areas should respond to cuts to local government services and the pressures, often from within the community, to ‘substitute’ for those services. This applied in particular to:

  • the withdrawal of youth and play services in a number of areas
  • the ending of community chest/local authority small grants schemes
  • the threatened closure of community facilities (e.g. the library in Three Parishes) or transfer of community assets from the local authority to the private sector (Hanwell).

Questions were also raised as to whether small grants were effectively replacing previous local authority community chest schemes which had been withdrawn, rather than stimulating new activity or ‘protecting’ existing provision to the detriment of new initiatives:

‘The risk is that grants are on a first come first served basis and the bigger organisations are better placed to apply.’

Partnership member

Cuts were also seen as a factor in the time taken to deliver projects, particularly capital ones. Planning permissions (e.g. for environmental improvements, play spaces and even signage) have taken longer than anticipated because of reduced staffing to process applications and this could lead to frustrations within the community where people thought that ‘nothing was happening.’

Balancing long term development and short term delivery

The fact that Big Local is ‘grounded’ in the community was seen as a key asset. Residents and, indeed, delivery agencies, were ‘in for the long haul’. This in itself however, has surfaced some tensions.

The resident-led nature of Big Local was seen in some cases as contributing to a slower than anticipated pace of development. Residents are very conscious that they need to be seen (by other residents) to get things right and show tangible results:

‘The challenge is that strategic work takes time and residents do not see change happening quickly and can get frustrated…so low level activity is as important as the strategic.’

Partnership member

‘People accept results, not promises. They want to see a result, and if you do not produce that result, they will go away.’

Partnership member

A slow lead in time though does have the longer term potential benefit of building community ownership of plans and activities:

‘It hasn’t got off to quite the start perhaps that they all hoped for, but partly because they were one of the [wave 1 areas] and it took a while nationally for them to be able to feed some of their aims and objectives down and for them to understand it. But also partly because there isn’t a lot of council involvement or structured involvement, they have had to devise those structures themselves.’

Council Officer

In some areas, therefore, there has been an emphasis on ‘quick wins’ (putting in planters/other environmental improvements). However, even apparently ‘easy’ actions can take time. Green space improvements in one part of Northfleet, identified as a quick visual win, had to be abandoned because of problems with planning permissions. In Barrowcliff, the plan to have road safety measures near the school seemed to drag on:

‘It took two and a half years – but we got there.’

Partnership member

Other areas talk about the ‘trade off’ between getting things done versus the importance of embedding the resident-led ethos. Taking time to build local capacity may appear to slow delivery, but has long term gains in terms of commitment, sustainability, allowing for things to happen differently and not just involving ‘the usual suspects’ in decision making:

‘We have needed to do a lot of capacity building with a lot of new people, and I suppose the downside is the time frame but the upside I suppose is that if we had gone through the usual channels of councils, through the usual suspects of councillors and people that councillors knew, we probably would be further forward, but we may not necessarily have, I do not know, delivered quite what people want.’

Council Officer

Balancing the ‘hyper local’ with being outward looking

The relatively small populations, and therefore the hyper-local aspect of Big Local, was viewed as a key strength. Residents, particularly (but not exclusively) in rural areas, talked about being able to access services previously unavailable – or which required lengthy and expensive travel. For example, people in Ramsey have had to travel out of the area to access children’s activities, and were thus dependent on having a car or the funds to pay for expensive bus fares. Toddler Time, the BOSH play scheme and Crunch youth club appear to be making a huge difference to families (Ramsey Fun Day) who now not only have services on their doorstep but also volunteering opportunities. In the case of Birchfield, matching up those local needs with social business opportunities enabled Big Local to both respond to those local circumstances, but also support the development of an enterprise which is now winning contracts outside the immediate area.

The ‘downside’ of this hyper-localism was reported in some areas, where Big Locals become inward looking and do not see ‘the bigger picture’. For some, such as Revoe, the immediacy of the problems facing the community has made looking outwards to what else is happening in Blackpool challenging. Others, particularly in rural areas, felt isolated from the bigger picture of decisions made at a County Council level. Areas such as Lawrence Weston have been very astute at aligning themselves with other strategic regeneration plans – but they have been fortunate enough to be located in an area where there are (in contrast to other Big Locals) opportunities to do so and to access external funding (e.g. Coastal Communities Fund).

Council level. Areas such as Lawrence Weston have been very astute at aligning themselves with other strategic regeneration plans – but they have been fortunate enough to be located in an area where there are (in contrast to other Big Locals) opportunities to do so and to access external funding (e.g. Coastal Communities Fund).

This is where Big Local as a wider network of 150 areas plays an important role in ‘seeing the bigger picture’. For those that had engaged in training sessions and networking events, Local Trust played an important role in enabling residents see that bigger picture:

‘Because when you’re just... in one place, unless you travel to other places and go to the venues, it’s very much, it’s difficult to keep the enthusiasm going and I think having your sort of parental oversight in this respect has been good. It feels that I am plugged into something which is bigger than just [names Big Local area]. ...And it shows that we are in a sense part of a bigger community ourselves.’

Partnership member

The spring events were very inspiring. You realise that Big Local is a significant campaign across the country.’

Partnership member

Balancing accountability, risk and innovation

...people should take risks probably because funders think that’s a good thing to say, so ‘Be innovative, be different, take a risk; it’s okay, we can learn from failure’ but actually in those communities I don’t think these partnerships feel like that at all because they feel accountable to the other people in the community and they see failure as a personal failure or losing the money or wasting the money. So I actually think every partnership is more risk averse for valid reasons than we would say is necessary. ...So I think a lot of it is about the fear of criticism.’

Local Trust

As discussed in Section 3, local residents on partnerships are acutely aware of their accountability to the wider community for Big Local money. One of the consequences of this has been to operate in quite a formal way – to be seen to be accountable – and this can be off putting to local residents and make it difficult to recruit new people. This is not, however, simply about formality, but also – as noted - the complexity of decisions partnerships are making – not only about spend but also, for example, about planning permissions, legal structures or commissioning services.

Some, however, have been more innovative – with all meetings being open to the public with community members (rather than just the formally elected partnership members) having a right to vote. Others publish their meetings and financial statements online or have not adopted formal/specific officer positions and rotate roles. These are the exception rather than the norm and even where Big Local areas felt that their partnerships had adopted more collective approaches to decision making and were highly democratic, they also noted a ‘downside’ to being open and accessible. Decision making could be a slow process – with original decisions being revisited and reviewed on a regular basis – or opportunities which had short response deadlines being lost (e.g. possible purchase of a community asset in Birchfield).

That transition from development to delivery has in a number of instances, been slower than anticipated and the importance of transparency and accountability can result in cautious spend patterns (see also IVAR 2015) pdf=231kb:

‘...they had heard comments and some negative comments about how some of the [previous regeneration programmes] money was spent … and I think that was partly what caused panic with them, because they didn’t want to repeat what they perceived to be those mistakes.’

Partnership member

Cautious spend was particularly a characteristic of some of the Big Local areas that were, in a sense, created, rather than ‘natural’ communities such as the rural villages, or disparate urban estates, brought together to submit a Big Local plan. Here, substantial amounts of time had been spent on developing due process to ensure the equity of spend and transparency of decision making, which had delayed delivery but had also been a strategy for managing the risk of potential conflict between communities.

There are, however, other forms of risk. Barrowcliff ‘took a risk’ by investing 40% of its Big Local money in the development of the Play Park – despite some scepticism locally that this would just get vandalised. The counter risk was, however, that residents had been arguing for this facility for at least ten years and there was therefore a reputational risk if the partnership did not deliver.

There are also elements of risk in terms of the issues a Big Local is prepared to take on – particularly where they are trying to address some of the ‘hard’ underlying issues that are confronting the community. People become passionate about the issue – and ‘their’ solution and there have been instances where partnership members have been verbally abused for their stance (or that of the partnership) on a particular issue. Communities can agree on what those issues are, but still be divided on the solutions as in the Blackpool Revoe (Snapshot 1).

Perhaps the most substantial risk some areas are taking is in asset management. Taking on the community hub because this is what the community wants – but without a clear idea of whether it is sustainable beyond the life of Big Local funding – can be, in the long term, a liability more than it is an asset. The Hanwell (Snapshot 8) illustrates a rather different approach to managing assets and spreading risk.

Balancing freedoms and flexibilities contrasted with clear guidance

Participants in the evaluation, both residents and workers, have identified the core strengths of Big Local as being its resident-led ethos and the associated flexibilities afforded in Local Trust guidance: the absence of prescribed work programmes or approaches to delivery, the long-term time frame, and the lack of numerical targets or annual spend patterns. Those that had experience of older funding regimes noted:

‘The lovely thing about it is... that is actually about community development. It’s not about ticking boxes, it’s not about providing stats to politicians to back up claims they’ve made. It’s genuinely about local people having the ability to make differences and nobody’s counting it. Nobody is going, ‘Yeah, you’ve got to get these stats in by such and such a date.’

Partnership member

‘The old RDA [Regional Development Agency] mechanism and the SRB [Single Regeneration Budget] mechanisms were very prescriptive and very complicated and they tended to wind people up and constrain them.’

Council Officer

‘Because they never trusted local people to make their own decisions and I think that’s the key thing with it to me…… And that is absolutely brilliant. And I've seen projects that are spending a lot more money achieving a lot less.’

Council Officer

Those flexibilities, however, are not always welcomed. Some participants would like clear advice, more boundaries, and a straighter path to follow:

‘You see, whenever we spoke to Local Trust... they’ve always said it’s an evolving process. And, you know, they leave us dangling – do we do this? If we do this, are we going to have our backside kicked? So you phone them back and you say ‘Well, we’re doing this’. ‘Well that’s fine if that’s what you want to do’. So there is no clear cut avenue for us to pursue.’

Partnership member

From a different perspective, however, the above quotation illustrates the tensions that Local Trust (and indeed reps) have to balance: offering advice and guidance whilst remaining light-touch and resisting ‘top-down’ directives. This may become a more acute issue as Big Local areas have to move to decisions on ‘spend down’ (tapering their funding as the money reduces) or ‘spend out’ (using up all their money). As the money runs out – who takes ultimate responsibility for the hard decisions either for allocating diminishing funds or ending spend altogether?

The following concluding section of the report begins by exploring the demands the programme makes on active residents.



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