Full chapter:

How Big Local works

Local Trust and Big Local

Local Trust employs a staff team of 14 and works with national delivery and research partners e.g. Renaisi, UnLtd, Northern College, who bring additional expertise to deliver the Big Local programme. At ground level, Local Trust contracts with 56 reps – local advisors who provide ‘light touch’ support to the Big local areas and act as the interface with the national programme. Typically, a rep has 12 days a year to carry out this role with each area they are supporting.

At the heart of Big Local is the value of ‘resident-led’ development. The ethos of Big Local is summarised in Table 1.


Table 1: The Big Local Programme
The Local Trust Big Local website states:

‘Big Local is an exciting opportunity for residents in 150 areas around England to use at least £1m each to make a massive and lasting positive difference to their communities. Big Local brings together all the local talent, ambitions, skills and energy from individuals, groups and organisations who want to make their area an even better place to live.

Big Local is funded by the Big Lottery Fund and managed by Local Trust.

Big Local outcomes:

  1. Communities will be better able to identify local needs and take action in response to them.
  2. People will have increased skills and confidence, so that they continue to identify and respond to needs in the future.
  3. The community will make a difference to the needs it prioritises.
  4. People will feel that their area is an even better place to live.



In Big Local, residents decide upon any changes that they feel need to happen, design how change will take place, and determine appropriate timeframes for affecting change. In this section, we explore what ‘resident-led’ means in practice in Big Local areas and examine the varying structures and processes that have emerged in the spirit of resident-led development.

The Big Local partnerships

The work in each area is overseen by a Big Local partnership. This is the decision making body with responsibility for designing activities to achieve agreed outcomes. Local Trust prescribes that membership of Big Local partnerships must comprise at least 51% residents. In reality, most of the 15 areas that are contributing to Our Bigger Story have a higher percentage of residents on their partnerships. In the 15 areas studied, there was a mean average of approximately 13 members per partnership, of which nine were residents (69%) and four were non-residents. See Tables 2-5 for profile information.

Table 2: Profile of membership of Big Local partnerships involved in Our Bigger Story (at November 2016)

Area Partnership total Residents/non residents Voting rights Note on voting permissions
Barrowcliff * 17 11/6 17 All organisation reps can vote
Birchfield * 14 9/5 12 Paid worker and LTO cannot vote
Blackpool Revoe * 10 6/4 7 School rep can vote but not other workers
Bountagu * 18 13/5 17 LTO cannot vote, some non residents can
Catton Grove ** 9 7/2 9 All can vote
Grassland Hasmoor * 16 11/5 13 4 non voters: LTO, independent chair and advisors
Growing Together * 16 13/3 14 One resident who has moved still has voting rights
Hanwell * 13 8/5 8 Only residents can vote
Lawrence Weston * 18 10/8 14 Big Local workers and LTO cannot vote, but some agencies have a vote
North Northfleet * 12 7/5 11 Big Local paid worker does not have a vote, agencies have a vote
Radstock and Westfield * 9 7/2 7 LTO rep (resident) has a vote but not Big Local workers
Ramsey Million * 11 9/2 8 One resident has paid role and cannot vote
Three Parishes * 11 10/1 11 All can vote, including LTO
Westfield * 13 11/2 12 I non resident local business owner can vote, advisor cannot vote
Whitley Bay ** 14 8/4 plus councillor and LTO 12 Councillor and LTO cannot vote, some non residents can vote

* Information source is Local Trust Partnership Review
** Information source is the Big Local area

Table 3: Age range of partnership members across the 15 case studies (where specified)

Under 25 25-44 45-64 65 and over
1 162 85 49

Table 4: Gender make up of partnerships across the 15 case studies (where specified)

Female Male
124 73

Table 5: Ethnic identity of partnerships across the 15 case studies (where specified)

White Asian / Asian British Black/African/Caribbean/Black British Other
166 11 18 5

(Source: Local Trust Partnership Review 2016)

The profile of partnership members does reflect a broader picture of volunteers and community activists (Office for National Statistics 2013) in that the majority are women and White. Interestingly, however, the age profile is younger than the norm.

These figures in Table 3 illustrate the different ‘rules’ that partnerships apply to membership and voting rights. Some allow non-residents to vote, some allow some organisational representatives to vote, some allow the LTO to vote – others don’t. In addition, defining who is and is not a ‘resident’ can be complicated by the different ‘hats’ people wear. For example, residents may be employed or contracted to work on behalf of the Big Local group and thereby forfeit their place as a resident decision maker, or they may have other local roles such as elected members (in two areas, partnership members have been elected whilst on the partnership), business people or workers in other locally based organisations. Some of the case study areas have struggled with this issue of partnership members wearing multiple hats – of residents who may also be workers, elected members or volunteers with other local community groups – and potential conflicts of interest:

‘...issue here is conflict of interest as... going to employ a partnership member... It's so hard to get a balance. We want Big Local to offer opportunities to people within our area but the minute we employ someone we possibly lose an active enthusiastic member of the partnership. What is the answer?’

Partnership member

In some areas, the partnership meetings are open to all residents, whether formal partnership members or not. For example, in Catton Grove and North Northfleet, residents may attend frequently though make it clear they do not want the responsibility of being a full partnership member. In others, such as Hanwell, Three Parishes, Growing Together and Birchfield, partnerships tend to be a fairly fixed group – frequently referred to formally as a ‘partnership board’.

‘...would value any resident that came along to a meeting to give their input as much as possible. Otherwise it stops being community-led.’ (Partnership member) ‘That’s important, that we continue to be open, because we do not want to exclude anybody and I think everyone should be welcome to come.’

Partnership member

Non-residents sitting round the partnership table tend have a history within the area but may live outside the boundary: people brought in (for example, agency representatives such as council members and officers, or supportive individuals) because they bring particular skills and expertise that can benefit Big Local. In addition, the LTO, which provides local accountable body function, is often present as is the Big local rep. All Big Local areas have at least one paid worker who is often also present and play a number of roles: supporting the chair, facilitating the plan review process, providing the administrative, monitoring or co-ordination of partnership meetings and delivery partners.

Those around the table at partnership meetings reflects:

  • the history of community activity locally and relationships with key agencies such as the local authority,
  • local authorities and local agencies willingness to engage with the spirit of Big Local,

    ‘I sometimes think that the county thinks of us as the back of beyond and they forget we exist.’

    Partnership member
    contrasted with:

    ‘[We] have a commitment to the community...it’s in everybody’s interest to see that change... the benefits for the housing associations are obvious... it’s a no brainer for us [to be involved]...’

    Delivery partner
  • who was involved from the start and helped shape the Big Local ‘profile’ in the area,
  • the extent to which past approaches to community involvement have been successful, and
  • learning from slow or troubled starts and fallings out:

    ‘Has had its ups and downs with several attempts at a steering group and Partnership but settled down a bit now.’

    Partnership member

Those involved with Our Bigger Story reflected on the different skills, knowledge and enthusiasm that partnerships may require in moving from initial consultation and engagement to ‘programme management’, and who is staying involved, in what is becoming a more technical, and in some cases, a more ‘professionalised’ process:

‘The challenge is connecting the creation of the plan and delivery through the management group….it takes time to develop what the plan actually means in delivery terms.’

Big Local Worker

This begins to raise issues about what resident-led means over time: the ‘types’ of residents that sit around the partnership table, the numbers of people making decisions, the accessibility, style and format of meetings, the scope of decision making by residents when their LTO and others such as paid workers are also at the table. The evaluation team has observed how easy it is for the more confident and articulate to speak up and hold sway – even if they do not have a formal decision making role.

‘Resident involvement, not just the council driving it. Big Local is a positive way for people to take ownership of where they live. ...people who hadn’t worked together are now working together, people who couldn’t sit in the same room are sitting together and people saying ’actually they are delivering.’

Local Councillor

Despite these questions, the resident-led ethos is valued – though time was required to build effective partnerships, especially where these involved building new sets of relationships:

‘I think we have delivered brilliantly – for a group of people who didn’t know anything about anything.’

Partnership member

‘It is what it says, we are growing together.’

Partnership member

Who is involved and how does it work?

Respondents have reflected on the challenges of:

‘...taking people with you. Need to make strategic decisions but there are gaps in skills and understanding.’

Partnership member

Others have talked of the partnerships understanding different people’s ability and ‘moulding’ things together to reach an informed consensus or agreement. Indeed, there is substantial evidence of active residents trying very hard to listen and understand in order to find a consensual way forward. There is also growing evidence of how residents are stepping up to the challenge and making increasingly complex decisions – around planning issues or asset management. Areas that started out only making small grants have moved on to larger scale agreements with delivery partners.

People have also talked about slowly grasping what Big Local is all about, that they are seeing the bigger picture and developing their confidence:

‘...more sure of themselves – the ‘growing in them is significant’. These are people who have never been on a committee, can be difficult, but learning, and learning about how to think for themselves. This is their community and the first time they have been able to make decisions about it. Many talk about how they have learnt to listen to others, be patient, more thoughtful discussion.’

Partnership member

In a number of areas this has been a process of ‘getting to a bigger picture’, and in some remains a struggle. Often, individuals became involved to ‘argue for their pet project’ rather than seeing Big Local ‘in the round’. In the first year of this evaluation there were many comments that reflected concerns about people and groups only looking ‘to their own needs’. But as people have deepened their understanding of Big Local and become more experienced partners, this is changing in most areas:

‘Brought quite a diverse bunch of people together who probably would never have met under any other circumstances... We’ve all got different views. We’ve all got our own pet projects probably... everybody has maybe got a different agenda but we’re all able to work things out and I think it’s taught me quite a lot about other people and how to manage myself in an environment like this as much as anything else.’

Partnership member

‘I went to the meeting, I sat, I listened, I said more than my piece, I really gave it to [them], because I had got all the negatives that I was bought up with,... and I know what people think, to a degree. So I was outpouring that, because nobody else was bothered, I thought it had to be said... But I thought, when I went home, I thought I will give it a try,... So I just kept going to the meetings, ...and then I was fortunate enough to be asked to join the interim steering group, and then following that, into the partnership. Although I have a lot of frustrations ...We keep plodding away, because unfortunately if (we) didn’t, this wouldn’t be happening.’

Partnership member

In the interests of inclusion and ensuring they have the ‘right’ skills, some partnerships have taken a broad view of what constitutes an eligible partner, and been open to partnership members who volunteer in the area or professionals (who may or may not live in the area), or who have particular skills and expertise. However, as resident members become more confident there are examples of where this is causing some underlying tensions.

‘I feel that precedence should be given to those who live here so that we can build a strong community.’

Partnership member

‘I have at times felt I was fighting to keep what the community have asked for at the centre of what we do whilst other board members are pulling in different directions, focus on their strong ideas and principles which may not be the same as the communities ideas and principles and going off on tangents with projects that the community have not identified as a need.’

Partnership member

Working together has been a particular challenge for those areas that did not identify the area marked by a Big Local boundary as one cohesive place. Initially people were arguing for their particular estate, village or parish, for example, Grassmoor or Hasland (rather than Grassmoor and Hasland), or Western Rhyn (rather than Three Parishes as a whole).

‘I’ve seen a lot of bad behavour. On consideration though some of this has been caused by our lack of understanding of what was expected of us and how to go about it. The Big Local, with all good intentions, throw together all the enthusiastic volunteers from an area, who each have passion and commitment to what they are involved in, and expect them to work together for the betterment of the area but personalities and existing priorities get in the way.’

Partnership member

There is a real passion amongst those actively involved in Big Local, people with an emotional commitment to the locality. This is a strength of community driven development but it does bring its own challenges:

‘The difficulties come out of a positive. There are amazing people involved, very committed, and passionate and care about [names Big Local area]. The downside is that they all want to play a leading role and that has caused conflict.’

‘Strong characters can draw others in, but also put off others...’

Partnership member

This emotional commitment and the sense of ownership that people develop, mean that any disagreement amongst partnership members can be taken very personally. This can have more lasting consequences when the differences of opinion are amongst friends and neighbours, as may well be the case in a small locality. Further, sustaining passion over a long term programme such as Big Local can be wearing. There is always a risk that people (and workers) burn out. Though not a new phenomenon, this applies to residents active in partnerships and multiple other activities – but also in instances where Big Local workers were also residents.

The commitment of those that have persevered through the ups and downs of personal and group development should be acknowledged, as should their determination to achieve the overarching long term goals of Big Local in the face of current difficulties:

‘...We bounce ideas off of each other and we try to get to a conclusion, and unfortunately the road to that conclusion is very bumpy I am afraid, and we veer off and go around it, or under it or over it, and try to get there.’

Partnership member

Alternatively, residents may have a shared understanding of what the key issues are in their community, but differ fundamentally on how to respond. For example, addressing drugs and alcohol use was identified as a core issue in Blackpool Revoe (see Snapshot 1). Every area has prioritised children and young people but their responses and consequent activities are very different (see Table 7). This is in part dependent upon the local context and the type of service deemed to be specifically needed but often because they rely on the local configuration of existing approaches of service providers. For example, Growing Together was able to commission a film production educational project because it already existed rather than deciding they needed this specific type of project. Some areas have been more innovative than others. For example, Bountagu Big Local has supported young people to develop entrepreneurial skills, and changed its youth club approach in order to positively target a particular group of young people:

‘We did outreach, and we asked them why are you not coming? ...we thought we were doing a great job, and the place was empty. And they were thinking this is where all the wayward children go. So you have to be careful what you promote ...it was giving them a mixed message ...we had beat boxing ...very flash ...the parents were actually scared to send their kids. So all the things that we were doing, although they were cool were kind of not quite meeting what people wanted.’

Partnership member

What partners talked about, however, was the ‘steep learning curve’ of moving from initial involvement to making those bigger, harder, decisions.

Structure and procedure

The following paragraphs outline a number of the challenges that partnerships face, and some of the solutions that Big Local areas have identified.

Some challenges:

Big Local has always encouraged a creative and, to some extent, an informal process that allows anyone to participate, regardless of particular skills and knowledge. Yet, the majority of the areas involved in the evaluation have adopted traditional approaches to meetings, planning processes and community consultation.

Observing the use of such traditional meetings, one partnership chair noted:

‘Partnership Board members do not really understand Big Local because they have not attended training events to find out about Big Local so they fall back on what they used to do and know. It’s a sort of charity model with the Board as Trustee’.

A frequently expressed view, from Local Trust and reps – but also from partnerships themselves – is that, to ensure that they are seen to be accountable they have adopted very traditional forms of governance. Some people have talked about the fact that meetings can be tedious but assume it has to be this way to get things done. There are also those that have adopted local government type models – with executive and working groups. Others operate almost as the boards of charities with highly formalised proceedings. Indeed, most of the areas involved in Our Bigger Story used the term, partnership ‘board’.

Partnership procedures and responsibilities can be daunting: observations include residents spending inordinate amounts of time discussing the complexities of contracts and VAT, or getting to grips with incorporating as a formally constituted body:

‘Meetings are boring – how long did it take is to agree that bloody funding form? Too much legislation, terms of reference, etc.’

Partnership member

One person said that attending the partnership or one of its theme groups would be ‘intimidating if you weren’t a professional.’ (Partnership member)

Most people require support and encouragement to get and stay fully involved in any kind of group or organisation, and to keep up with understanding decisions that have been taken and their implications. One partner, for example, talked about resigning because ‘nobody is listening’. Another complained that the partnership was ‘quite scary’ and in more than one area concerns have been raised about those making the decisions not being in touch with ‘the ‘real’ people’:

‘An expectation that anyone who comes on the board is a ‘mover and shaker’, rather than just man on the street.’

Partnership member

In addition several partnerships talked about how it can be difficult for new members coming into already established structures and relationships:

‘Hard bringing new people in because they feel there is a group that know what they are doing, and where do they fit within it?’

Partnership member

In some areas, people note a disconnect between those on the partnership and those running and/or involved in activities:

‘It’s not joining together – you have volunteers…doing things…, and then you have the partnership board and they are not matching up.’

Paid worker

Observations in 13 Big Local areas, reinforce this. For example, partnerships may comprise a fairly narrow age range amongst members, or a majority ethnicity, which is not reflected in those taking part in local activities and events. Some partnerships recognise this and discuss how they might change the composition of the strategic body others, however, seem unaware of these issues.

Some solutions:

A number of partnership chairs stressed that to be a group, the partnership needs a social function (‘time to chat and gossip’) and have fun, as well as a focus on tasks. Bountagu, has organised some of its meetings over a meal in a local restaurant. In Ramsey Million, new people are encouraged to start with a project so that they understand ‘their’ bit of the whole first. Barrowcliff, Lawrence Weston and Northfleet all hold ‘get togethers’ as an informal ‘way-in’ for people new to Big Local:

‘Fortnightly Monday morning club in the café: It keeps residents involved in an informal way – people who may not want to participate in formal meetings.’

Paid worker

Most, but not all, Big Local partnerships have working, thematic or sub-groups. These can be effective and draw on the specific skills and enthusiasms of residents who may not, for whatever reason, want to be formally on the partnership (for example the Green and Open Spaces Group in Grassmoor Hasland Big Local). There is always the danger that this can result in a silo approach to delivery where individual Big Local themes or work programmes can operate in isolation and do not build to ‘a bigger picture.’ Many Big Local areas recognise this and measures are being put in place to ensure there is a more ‘joined up’ and strategic approach through the plan review process (for example, in Hanwell). In discussions with partnerships, several have commented that their approach to successful sub groups / working groups is to avoid them becoming ‘cliquey’ where they provide a voice for one or two people, or are unduly influenced by agencies which have an input on working groups, but not the partnership as a whole. All these issues and ways of mitigating them have been the subject of Big Local networking events. A simple checklist identifying familiar challenges with different approaches to meeting them from across the 150 areas could stimulate new thinking. There are, for example, some working methods that might seem radical to some Big Locals but would at least create healthy discussion, such as the rotating chair model, consensual decision making, and a community get together just a few times a year instead of a regular partnership meeting. Creating the conditions for community leadership is a theme returned to in Section 4.

‘The management group makes all the decisions Not enough consultation.’

Partnership member

Working out how to make Big Local work best in a particular area is in part the result of trial and error. With positive motives, many partnerships are responding to the increasing complexities of delivering plans by forming executive groups. These may be called project management, delivery groups etc. Those involved in these think they are vital to managing the workload, particularly in those areas with ambitious, multi-strand, plans. However, those not involved in these executive groups can be very critical, with people from more than one area commenting that partnership meetings have become a ‘rubber stamping’ exercise for decisions made elsewhere. In one area, some partners are unhappy about the way the project management group was set up and how people became members. They felt that there had not been any discussion and it had just ‘appeared’. In another area both partnership and non-partnership members talk about one or two people who want to control everything, including who gets on to the partnership. Conversely, discussion in one area about whether to form an executive group and hold less frequent partnership meetings led to a collective response that everyone wanted to be centrally involved, to ‘have their say and not have words put in their mouths’. There is often a tension here between those who are, and can, put in a lot of time and others who feel left out; there are both those who feel they do everything and feel undervalued, and others who feel ‘left out of the loop’ and undervalued.

Many of the tensions identified are becoming stronger as partnerships are responsible for more and more plan delivery. What is, however, evident from the data on partnership working, structures and processes is that residents are reflecting on the key issues of power, influence, equity and control in decision making and engagement with the wider community. This will be important to pick up as the longitudinal evaluation progresses.

Transparency and accountability

Being open and transparent requires a conscious effort. As stated above, some partnerships, to be seen to be transparent, make it clear that meetings are open to anyone who wants to come along and encourage everyone to participate in discussions. For others, organising ostensibly social events (fete’s, local carnivals etc.) also fulfils the purpose of the partnership being visible to the community and therefore more accountable.

Attempts to increase transparency and accountability often take the form of newsletters (see, for example, North Northfleet pdf=7mb) and written reports, web-based news and publication of meeting minutes, occasional open days, consultation events and community wide forums. These seem to work best where there are paid staff to help co-ordinate things. Sometimes the only people who attend are those who are already a ‘bit in the know’. Partnerships regularly complain that more people do not turn up to events: or attendance does not translate into engagement with the partnership and decision making. They also grumble that people only come ‘for a grumble’ and feel frustrated that their hard work, time and commitment is not acknowledged. Inevitably, active residents can become very defensive, particularly when they have previously experienced criticism.

Allocating funds

Partnerships have expressed caution, both about governance structures and spend, and are only too aware that not only do they need to be accountable, but need to be seen to be so. They were, in their view, responsible for expenditure within their own community – rather than making decisions about funding for a community with which they were only remotely connected.

This is particularly the case where partnerships are trying to balance:

  • encouraging new community activity whilst not introducing onerous application processes for funding,
  • ensuring perceived equity of funding within different parts of Big Local areas (e.g. not being seen to favour one estate or village over another), and
  • promoting innovation (for example, Ambition Lawrence Weston’s plans for social investment in green energy production) whilst ensuring that funded initiatives are actually demonstrate value for the community.

Various strategies have been adopted and continue to be revised and refined. In terms of small grants, areas such as Radstock have introduced public voting Dragon’s Den-style events. Three Parishes has developed a simple application process, with capacity building support and simple, standardised, progress and feedback systems. Whitley Bay Big Local has introduced Small Sparks awards of up to £250 and held a 'Soup' crowd funding event as a way of giving more grass roots access to funds. Growing Together has both a large projects proposal form and a small grants application form on its website and is clear where the decisions about funding will be made. Another example was the Ramsey ‘project mandate form’ that everyone who wanted to deliver a project had to fill in and could be used for evaluation purposes to ensure everything was open and above board.

In terms of larger, revenue, spends many have adopted a more detailed commissioning process, though a few (e.g. Blackpool Revoe and Whitley Bay) have opted for open tendering so as not to be seen to favour particular agencies. Some in Whitley Bay Big Local have since acknowledged, however, that this can work against a desire to strengthen grass-roots organisations and damage relationships at the local level.

A light touch approach

From the start, the Big Local programme has espoused a ‘light touch’ approach. In the NCVO evaluation report, Big Local: the early years, pdf=2.7mb 2015 (p30) the core elements of this light touch approach are described as:

  • minimal rules and regulations,
  • support and guidance provided in an enabling way,
  • simple systems and processes, and
  • a learning culture.

The diversity of the partnerships’ operating models is testimony to the fact that Local Trust and its national partners have encouraged Big Local areas to develop in ways that are meaningful to them and appropriate to their context (see Thumbnail sketches, Section 1). Some areas became operational quickly and have drawn down and used a large proportion of their £1 million (for example, Growing Together and Barrowcliff), others have only recently begun to deliver their plan and committed very little of their money so far (for example, Radstock and Revoe). Some, in the early years, have taken a deliberately cautious approach:

‘In the first year... I think we did the right thing, not putting too much pressure on ourselves, just really trying to make a foundation with the people that came forward. I think the next three years is really about really pushing to get more people involved.’

Partnership member

The acknowledgement that ‘one size does not fit all’ and enabling different approaches to be developed is a key feature of the Big Local programme. As noted, Big Local areas evolve at their own pace, draw down resources as and when needed (rather than on a pre-agreed schedule) and devise their own governance structures. It does mean, however, that as the programme develops over time and new processes are introduced (e.g. the plan refresh, the partnership review and the introduction of ‘Social Investment Reps’), some participants feel that they are getting mixed messages and question whose money it is. Some residents talk about wanting more autonomy and others feel there could be more guidance:

‘They don’t say, “Oh yeah, we’ve got a policy for that, there you go”. They say, “Well, you put your policy together, you decide what you want to do”.’

Partnership member

‘Could be clearer – are we autonomous or not?’

Partnership member

‘Supposed to be different but you’ve got to do everything the same.’

Partnership member

There are those who feel it would be easier for partnership consensus if there were clearer messages (i.e. ’you can do this, you can’t do that’). Some have said that a handbook would be useful so that everyone is clear, particularly with regard to the LTO. The areas that reported difficulties would like guidance around the LTO role and responsibilities and relationship with the Big Local partnership to be ‘sharper’, particularly in relation to what the 5% grant to LTOs for administration/management costs is actually meant to cover:

‘I think they (LTO) do sometimes struggle with their role and we do not always know what the boundaries are, so a little bit more guidance from the Local Trust HQ…. would be good.’

Partnership member

Locally Trusted Organisations (LTOs)

The concept of, and rationale for, LTOs is a proactive aim on the part of Local Trust to free up residents from the bookkeeping and paperwork that goes with managing and reporting on at least £1 million. It is intended to encourage residents who may not want to be part of an organisation to be involved, and help the partnerships stay outward and outcome-focused, as opposed to becoming inwardly concerned with bureaucracy and their own organisational survival. In addition, the LTO model recognises that there are local organisations with existing structures in place that can provide support, advice and expertise to residents without creating something completely new.

The nature of, and roles played by, LTOs vary substantially. Some act purely as financial managers with partnerships taking on the supervision of paid workers. Others are much more engaged as advisors and active participants in partnerships and, in some cases, the LTO is also a delivery partner. For a majority of groups involved in the evaluation, the LTO model works very well:

‘A good backstop for accountability, etc.’

Partnership member

‘LTO role of managing money is good – would be more of a risk if local people were doing it. They bridge the gap with Local Trust.'


In some areas, the LTO is itself a small organisation and playing this role has helped its development, local connections and roots:

‘...the first time they employed workers was on behalf of [Big Local partnership] but a good relationship, all seems very smooth and strong personal relationships’.

Partnership member

‘We enable them to go out and do the work – we do the backroom stuff. Want this to continue... a larger body as engine room and a group out there.’


In at least two of the study areas, there are suggestions from both the partnerships and the LTO that the locally-based LTO will be an appropriate legacy body for the activities and ways of working initiated by Big Locals.

Whilst the LTO model appears to work in most areas, it is not always a smooth relationship. A number of Big Local partnerships have changed their LTO. In one area this was because they felt their original LTO had the skills to manage community consultation but did not have the necessary capacity for financial and programme management. In at least one case the LTO is in a precarious financial position. In other areas though, there have been some difficult relationships between the partnerships and their LTO:

‘Many do not understand the LTOs role, despite it being explained, and expect staff members to be at ‘their’ behest at the snap of ‘their’ fingers.’

Partnership member

There are currently at least three out of the 15 case study sites where the LTO has given notice. One respondent indicates that the LTO relationship has been disappointing and questions the model because it gives all the ‘difficult stuff’ to someone else instead of building skills in the community, and creates dependency.

Other difficulties with LTOs were reported. These include, for example, LTO’s not providing regular accounting updates to the partnership, not wanting to have much of a role, refusing to handle day-to-day expenses (or reimbursing staff/partners late). There are also examples of LTO’s not wanting to employ Big Local staff, refusing to take on building leases or conversely, being too heavy handed and not understanding the ethos of residents running the programme. Instead of liberating residents from money matters, it can actually do the opposite – several partnerships have spent substantial amounts of time discussing a ‘failing’ relationship with their LTO, and in some instances, Big Local areas feel they are being pushed by the situation with their LTO into formalising their structure so as to become their own LTO.

‘Hands off’ support

In addition to greater clarity regarding the role of the LTO, some partnerships have also requested more understanding about the role of their Big Local rep.

The role of the reps changes as the partnerships work through the different stages of the programme (engagement, profiling, visioning, plan design, plan delivery) the Big Local pathway, the post-plan assignment stating:

‘Your role as a rep is to help the area achieve their vision for the Big Local area through support, advice and appropriate challenge. You will maintain an overview of Big Local as the ‘eyes and ears’ of Local Trust and ensure that the three-way relationship between the partnership, LTO and Local Trust is working as planned.’


In one area, the partnership noted how the role of the rep had changed – from being very pro-active in the plan development stage to being more of a responsive sounding board in the delivery stages.

Generally, the concept of the Big Local rep role is welcomed. Reps are described by Big Local partnerships as playing a mediating role, as an analyser, a summariser, and valued for their support around team-building and networking. On the other hand, the role of reps has also been questioned:

‘Rep as the arrow – keeping the Partnerships on track.’

Paid worker

‘Not sure what their role is or why they come; ...they observe but do not contribute much; ...do not tackle anything.’

Paid worker

For the reps themselves it can feel an isolated role, especially for those that do not have pre-existing relationships with other reps. Reps can be unclear about ‘doing the right amount’. They have to manage and balance the expectations from Local Trust and its reps delivery partner Renaisi, with expectations from the partnerships. Sometimes reps find themselves picking up work which might be expected of the LTOs. In some areas, the rep is dedicating a substantial amount of time, and in others it appears to be very little. This, however, may be a fluctuating pattern depending on the strengths and needs of the partnerships at different times. In one area, there was a feeling that the rep should help network and signpost more to the work of other Big Locals, and one partner in another area said they expected more direct advice and ‘answers’ from the rep:

‘They say they are playing Devil’s Advocate, well... I do not have time for that... Just say ‘yes or no’, or ‘another area does this.’

Partnership member

It may be that those partnerships that have had an opportunity to choose their rep have thought through their expectations more thoroughly than those who feel they have had no choice. Some areas have retained the rep they were allocated at the start of the programme, and in some parts of the country there is a much smaller pool of reps available. The lack of clarity regarding expectations can be further confused when there is paid worker support in place. For example, who does what when it comes to sorting out local conflicts or where there is a hands-on LTO? In other cases, reps provide a valuable support and mentoring role to the paid worker. This is not a discussion about ‘good’ and ‘poor’ reps. It is more a test of the clarity, and flexibility, around the role of the reps and how their styles of working and personalities have an impact on their relationships at the local level. Reps themselves have suggested (Our Bigger Story workshop with reps, 22 June 2016) that they may have been with an area for too long and become too comfortable, too close to the partnership and the delivery plan. They are concerned about creating ‘dependency’.

Paid workers

All Big Local areas in Our Bigger Story have chosen to have on the ground support through paid workers. The roles of those workers vary substantially: from primarily administrative tasks, to outreach, community development and project/programme management. As noted, light-touch guidance has enabled different approaches to evolve.

As the programme overall develops, more and more LTOs are employing workers on the Big Local’s behalf. This is not a decision partnerships take lightly. On the one hand they were very aware of the responsibilities of engaging paid workers, suggesting that workers should only take on tasks for which it was seen as ‘unreasonable’ to ask of volunteers (e.g. project over-sight/monitoring), or where particular skills and a large amount of time are required (e.g. community engagement). Further, Big Locals were very conscious of their responsibilities to support workers and pay reasonable wages: a responsibility that they balanced against a key consideration: payment of workers reduced the amount of money going directly to the community.

Workers are employed through a variety of models: secondment from the local authority, employed by the LTO or contracted on a self-employed basis. This diversity is matched by the different roles they play (e.g. co-ordinator, manager, community development worker, project workers, etc.) and by the numbers of paid staff, from one part time worker to one full time worker to several paid officers.

Some partnerships have been more ready to operate alongside paid staff than others. The relationship appears to work well where:

  • the worker has been active in the area for some time
  • there has been a paid worker in post from the early days, before the plan, as this has provided an opportunity for everyone to learn about Big Local together and let their respective roles emerge
  • the worker is employed by an LTO with a strong history within the community
  • the worker is also a local resident.

In some cases, partnerships have agonised over employing workers as this has been seen by some as reducing the available amount of money for direct community projects. Others have struggled with the issue of ‘saving money’ with workers operating on a self-employed basis versus the desire to be seen as a good employer offering fair terms and conditions of service. Where workers are employed, they are seen as playing a valuable role in, and bring different skills to, Big Local areas. Partners variously reported that paid staff:

  • reduced the administrative burden on partners
  • played a key developmental role in supporting and encouraging co-operation between local groups
  • took on ‘routine’ tasks that freed up partnerships to be more strategic:

    ‘Obviously I’m passionate about a lot of things, but it’s P. [the worker] that does all of the leg work for us. ...[the worker] has pretty much taken a back seat in terms of decision making and stuff like that. A lot of the decisions that have been made, have been made by us as a group, and whenever we needed something done like door knocking done and things like that we then organise [the worker] to do that. So [the worker] was only acting on the actions that we wanted to carry out.’

    Partnership member

On the whole, workers appear to understand the resident-led ethos of the programme and are keen to support and not to undermine decision-making by residents. It is inevitable however, that particularly where the worker is full time, they will build up relationships with other decision makers and power holders, interactions that residents may not have the opportunity to develop. This does raise questions about sustainable networks and influence in the future. There are also areas where residents let the workers ‘get on with it’ and can end up being passive recipients of the process2.

There have been difficulties in a few areas, most notably where the workers have not stayed beyond the first few months of their contract but also where partnership members feel they have not worked effectively with paid staff or not got the best from them. Although not the employer, there are responsibilities on the part of partnerships in terms of thinking through what they want the worker’s role to be and understanding what this might entail as well as how, as volunteers, they work alongside paid staff. Learning from several areas indicates that:

  • some partnership members never really saw the purpose of paid staff but went along with the majority
  • the workers were not clear what was expected of them and were given very little induction into what Big Local is about, and/or did not do enough of their own research into how the programme operates
  • residents were not involved enough in thinking through the job description
  • the LTO did not quite understand Big Local and the worker’s role
  • there was a lack of clarity around the relationship between the worker’s role and that of the rep.

‘Had to go through it [employment of staff] to say ‘do we really want this?’ Not what the partners envisaged. Had to find out what they didn’t need.’

Partnership member

Where the relationship breaks down it can be a traumatic experience for everyone concerned and learning about how to ‘manage’ the relationship productively would be useful for all Big Local areas. Equally, several workers have said they would like to network with others carrying out similar roles and build their learning about how to balance ‘being left to get on with it’ with enabling residents to take the lead.

Opportunities to reflect and share learning

Local Trust offers a range of learning opportunities, and peer learning – sharing with and learning from other Big Local areas at networking events was particularly valued – as are chair’s meetings for those who attend. These networking spaces were, for some, a key opportunity not only for disseminating information on ‘what works’ but offered a safe space for sharing problems, challenges and potential solutions. In one observed partnership meeting, Big Local, and Local Trust itself, were described as ‘learning systems’.

‘It’s good to know we are not alone.’

Partnership member

For partnership members, learning was, predominantly, experiential: learning by doing. This was repeatedly discussed, across areas, in terms of the transition from visioning and plan development to delivery.

‘Learnt that working with people takes time.’

Partnership member

Partnership members repeatedly reported the development of new skills: from understanding planning application processes to assessing funding applications; from project development to monitoring and assessing delivery.

‘We are learning things as we go along. A really interesting experiment here.’

Partnership member

‘It’s a learning curve for partners who haven’t worked with other agencies and other businesses. It’s learning to work with the businesses and understanding what we actually want from them, and what they can get from us as well, it’s that two way thing that we are learning still.’

Paid worker

This applied to volunteers as well. For example, those in Birchfield valued the opportunity to gain advice, guidance and counselling qualifications through their involvement in ‘Stepping Forward’, the Big Local Job Club.

As well as technical knowledge, local residents particularly appreciated the opportunities that partnerships afforded in terms of ‘soft’ skills: gaining confidence and self-belief, and using skills they had ‘in the home’ to develop new groups (e.g. gardening activities and arts/crafts groups). Beginning to be inquisitive and raise questions was also an element of Big Local learning for local residents – though this could be a hard process:

‘That has come quite late to us in some ways. Over the last six months we have been really questioning things and it has burst the bubble a little bit on some ways.’

Partnership member

In terms of experiential learning, plan reviews offer partnership members an opportunity to reflect on what they have already learned and apply that knowledge to forward planning.

All Big Local areas are expected to review their progress and refresh their plans on a regular basis. This is taken very seriously (see for example, the film of Ramsey’s Plan Review meeting) and often conducted in dedicated meetings which can be creatively facilitated, sometimes by a paid worker and sometimes by the Big Local rep. In Hanwell, the plan review process involved assessing delivery against core objectives and principles – in particularly equalities.

This is not a quick process however, and partnerships do struggle to make the time required.

‘Recognition that as a partnership have to manage it in a business-like and professional manner.’

Partnership member

Several partnerships have taken this opportunity to focus ‘in’ a bit more, acknowledging that their initial plans were very ambitious and that it is better to prioritise fewer things and make sure they are delivered:

‘...it was felt that with hindsight the first Development Plan was too ambitious in terms of the number of schemes and projects included which has stretched limited capacity within the group. Despite overall satisfaction with the outcomes from the first plan, for future plans, members are minded to feature fewer schemes to focus on more effectively.’

(Barrowcliff Plan Review 2015 p19)

Shared learning

Although some of the areas involved in Our Bigger Story are only just moving into the delivery phase, there are emerging, shared lessons on ‘what works’ in delivering Big Local plans – even though how those plans are being delivered varies considerably. These relate specifically to:

  • How the partnerships operate

    We had a really good turn out from community members in early meetings and felt we could deliver a lot of work from local volunteers who would stay in the community. As time went on many of the people who originally attended fell away and it was clear that we needed help and capacity to deliver our plans. However, I think what has been positive for us is not to have one worker who leads the whole project and has quite a bit of ownership but to keep the ownership with the BL board and to engage workers who have specific tasks’.

    Partnership member

The NCVO Early Years Report indicated that up to 30 residents could be active in any one Big Local partnership. As areas have moved to delivery, those numbers have tended to decline to a smaller core group (see Table 3). As a result, some areas have struggled with fewer people (often also active in other community groups) feeling over-burdened: ‘people give up, get exhausted and drop out.’

By relying on traditional forms of meetings and decision making, residents can be put off attending. Factors which have helped partnerships address these issues have included:

  • Mixing formal business meetings with social events.
  • Being visible: the partnership ‘being seen’ at community events (or actually organising them) rather than assuming that residents will ‘come to them.’
  • Making partnership meetings open events to ensure transparency.
  • Working collaboratively with other key local stakeholders and organisations, so that the partnership is not trying to do or oversee everything - there are several examples in the current report where, rather than taking the lead on a particular initiative, partnerships have achieved their goal by brokering relationships (for example the transition of the local library to a community resource in the Three Parishes).
  • Acknowledging the important social aspects of meetings that are not solely ‘task focused’: ‘Let’s not lose sight of it: Big Local should also be fun.’
  • Reducing the number of formal whole partnership meetings and working through sub-groups which attract residents to a particular issue they feel passionately about.
  • Ensuring that there are wider circles of volunteers around the partnership; those that do not attend meetings but will take forward agreed actions and plans.
  • Holding on to the long term vision – even when things get difficult.

Equally important has been the willingness (or otherwise) of partnerships to attract new members and transfer the skills and knowledge of established partnership members to them:

‘I suppose – I feel that we’ve been doing this for some time now and it’s the same people who have been doing it, and I think we’ve been very successful, but I think we’ve reached a point now where we need new blood on the committee and we need new ideas and whatever we thought the area needed, we’ve moved on a little bit now. And we need young people and more people to come and start telling us what the area needs now, because things move quite quickly and … – it’s a different area than it was five years ago.’

Partnership member
  • Partnership/inter-agency working
    The way in which partnerships work with their local authority, and vice-versa can be critical. In the Partnerships in Conversation (Leeds), participants from Whitley Bay describe how they have invested time and energy in turning round the relationship between residents and the local authority – from one where officers and members came to community meetings expecting to be shouted at to one where a more collaborative approach has facilitated problem solving in a difficult financial climate for local government. Here, the Big Local has been engaged in the Seafront Regeneration Plan and, working with the Friends of Whitley Park: ‘[involved] getting the park included in that [Seafront Regeneration Plan] meant that the Council came to see the park as an attraction, not a liability,’ (see Whitley Bay workshop film). In addition to working more closely with the council, Whitley Bay Big Local has also involved the police, the Chamber of Trade and a major transport provider in strategic conversations.

Hanwell Big Local also talked of the importance of regular meetings with the local authority being conducted within a framework of a shared problem solving rather than mutual blame. This was particularly the case in North Northfleet, where the local authority (or at least, sympathetic members and officers) had come to understand that Big Local was ‘more than a pot of money’ and had a credibility with, and could be a positive voice for, the wider community.

Growing confidence within partnerships, and the ability to ‘speak the same language’ were also seen as key facilitators:

‘The Council thought they were dealing with people who didn’t have a clue – but got a shock.’

Partnership member

In some, rural, areas building partnerships with local government in particular, has been problematic – not because of any inherent difficulties in relationships but because of the physical distance between them - remoteness of a large single rural unitary authority and the Big Local area. In other areas there has been what was described as – if not an openly hostile relationship – certainly one of distrust between local residents and local government. In still others, the difficulties related directly to budget cuts and, for example, the frustrations involved in substantial delays to planning permissions because of redundancies within the relevant Planning Department.

  • Communications
    Partnership members have frequently commented on the difficulties of conveying the Big Local message of being resident led ‘upwards’ to local policy makers and ‘outwards’ to the wider community. In a number of cases, understandings of the Big Local approach had not been helped by, often inaccurate, press coverage. This resulted in perceptions, locally, that the £1 million had been released by Local Trust in one tranche and was, put crudely, sitting in someone’s bank account – so why was nothing apparently happening? Communication has, therefore, become a substantive issue across the areas participating in the evaluation.

    Having a clear communications strategy has helped in this – combining face to face ‘chance’ meetings (‘Big Local throws together people that do not usually meet’ Partnership member), with regular events, up-to date websites, regular newsletters and a strong social media presence. In some instances, Big Local areas have contracted an external agency to manage communications (in the early days Somers Vale Community Radio undertook this role for Radstock) or, as in the case of Three Parishes, this is part of the responsibility of a worker. In others, the communications task has been ‘delegated’ to a specific partner or sub-group (Hanwell).

    In terms of effectiveness, partnerships were clear that word of mouth (supplemented by social media activity) was crucial. Those interviewed were however, very aware that it was risky to assume that residents would come to meetings, attracted simply by publicity. They also commented on the dangers of partnerships being drawn into meetings ‘behind closed doors’ which, whilst important in the planning process, reduced Big Local’s visibility. Large scale, open air, community events, whilst time consuming to plan, were an important factor in developing and maintaining community understanding of, if not active engagement in, Big Local.

Interestingly, however, communications strategies appeared to be most effective when the partnership was talking about what was happening in the community – rather than focusing on Big Local and the partnership itself. For more information on this see Local Trust’s Big Local online pdf=2.4mb report.


You can download the full printed report as a pdf document. The pdf document is 1.5MB. You will require Adobe Acrobat Reader to view and read.