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Putting people in control

Andy Curtis, Senior researcher at Local Trust outlines our response to the Civil Society Strategy and how can the Big Local model help redefine our understanding of civil society?

May 2018

Recently the Office for Civil Society (OCS) held a major consultation on its new Civil Society Strategy. Like many organisations, Local Trust submitted our own thoughts on this.

There are many strengths of civil society. It makes up a major part of our economy contributing over £15 billion per year and employing nearly 900,000 people. It is often able to deliver solutions and access people the state struggles to help. It can mobilise people and harness resources in ways that are beyond the capability of the private sector. And it connects us together – a significant proportion of the population give their time voluntarily and donate cash to good causes. We know from Local Trust’s own Big Local programme just how much unpaid time local people are willing to put into making their areas better.

However, it is also a sector going through period of transition. With austerity putting pressure on funding from both the national and local state, as well as changing economic and demographic factors – including an aging population – civil society organisations are having to rethink and reinvent business models to respond. The shape of the civil society sector that emerged through the noughties and survived the challenges of the last decade may not be the one we need for the next ten years.

The Big Local Model

In lots of ways, Big Local is an exciting exploration of a different model, and one that might become increasingly important as communities seek to maximise the scope for delivering and commissioning their own solutions as the state retreats. It’s a simple concept to start with – in 150 communities across the country, partnerships of local residents have been given £1 million each to spend over ten-fifteen years on resident priorities. Big Local is place-based funding. In basic terms, place-based funding is about supporting places, not projects and organisations. It involves a transfer of money and genuine decision-making power into the hands of communities, and vitally it is a long term investment too, at least ten years, in contrast to short-term regeneration programmes in the past, which also often only gave residents a tokenistic say in how the funding should be spent. In the process, it has enabled local areas to lever in new partnerships and other sources of funding. It has also enabled areas – often previously low on civic/social capital – to realise the value of the individuals living in their neighbourhoods. In Big Locals across the country we are seeing a massive increase in volunteering, with local residents collectively giving 1000s of hours a week.

Re-thinking civil society?

The OCS consultation’s bold ambition to redefine civil society to include everything outside the public sector offers an opportunity to rethink how we can individually and collectively contribute to ensure we all share better places to live. Civil society is the place in which we all engage, embracing motivated individuals, a socially aware private sector as well as the traditional voluntary sector. There may be semantic issues here, civil society has a long tradition of being defined separately from the public and private sectors – but it feels more like a challenge that we need to embrace.

Indeed, there is something about this notion that matches our own experience delivering Big Local, where traditional categories do not reflect the reality on the ground. In a thriving place, every sector is part of creating social goods. Providing employment in an area short of jobs is a pro-social act. In certain places it might be argued that all enterprise is essentially social. And a community needs places to meet and feel comfortable. A community centre can do this. But a local pub can be critical to this too. By viewing civil society in the broadest terms it may be possible to take a more holistic view of some of the challenges and consider how affected communities can develop their own solutions.

Recommendations for a stronger sector

Putting people in control

Whilst Big Local is not a model that is likely to be transferable in its entirety, the core principal of putting people tangibly in control certainly is and can be applied to different situations. Big Local is a simple idea that thinks big. A million pounds is a lot of money compared to small grants, yet it is pocket change when compared to a local authority’s social care budget. But the point is that it is a tangible asset. It has been used to buy buildings and build play parks. It has also been used to build small flower beds or put in a bin. Whichever way, it is the community’s choice and that’s the real story.

The importance of spaces

There should be an expectation that all communities will have access to affordable community space. This is incredibly important in many Big Local areas. The evidence emerging from Big Local is of the value of accessible space as a place where communities can come together and for viable local organisations to act as anchors for a much wider range of small/micro-level community endeavour. Not only is it a place for established activities to take place, but there can be a cross-fertilization of ideas and expertise with fledgling groups and activities as well. This is something explored by Dan Gregory in his recent essay 'Skittled Out'.

Use assets to help revitalise social infrastructure

A key learning from Big Local is the extent to which long-term sustained investment will be needed in many places to revitalise social infrastructure.  But recapitalising community level infrastructure will require new institutions and new funding. One approach might be to think about how asset transfer rules can be changed to allow for communities to have time to try to develop viable uses for community assets, rather than having to take on risk and face the challenge of raising funds for a space first. More ambitiously, Local Trust and other funders have proposed the creation of a dedicated Community Wealth Fund focused on investing in local communities in the long term.

Longer and more secure tenancies to make communities less transient

Finally, consideration might be given to reviewing rules on private sector and social sector tenancy length to support people becoming more rooted in communities, as a first step to their greater participation in civic life. It is worth stating that our experience from many Big Local areas is that – even with long term funding – increased levels of transience, particularly in poorer and more deprived areas, is a major obstacle to getting people involved in community-level civic activity. 

Overall, a change in approach and mindset can help civil society begin to thrive again in an ever changing, and often hostile, environment.

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