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Accidental Ostrom: how Big Local is proving a Nobel Prize-winning economist right

Matt Leach, CEO of Local Trust, sets out why the work of Elinor Ostrom is so vital and how Big Local has inadvertently created the conditions upon which to test her assumptions.

When COVID-19 arrived in Brinnington in Greater Manchester, the community was ready. Well before Stockport Council arrived on the scene, local people, working out of the Brinnington Community Hub, had organised themselves, started putting together food supplies, identified those who were most at risk in their neighbourhood and delivering help where needed. Strong community spirit, a building in their own control, and a small amount of funding meant they could make an immediate difference, when it was needed most.

Over the last eight years, the Big Local programme has tested the limits of what communities like Brinnington can achieve when given time, resources, and a small amount of light touch support.

Trusting local people enables them to improve their communities for the long term.”

What began as a large scale experiment in devolution of resources – putting £1m into the hands of local residents in each of 150 communities across the country and letting them to make decisions about how it should be spent – has developed into an amazing demonstration of the power and potential of community when given a chance to take control of their own neighbourhoods.

Communities making change happen

Whether in Ridge Hill Big Local, near Stalybridge, where residents have taken over a boating lake and turned it into a multipurpose community resource; or Dover Big Local, where local people have worked with the council to launch a business start up space with the aim of transforming their struggling high street; or Ambition Lawrence Weston, where the launch of a solar energy farm in partnership with the Bristol Energy Cooperative is only a small part of ambitious plans for regenerating their local area; we can see – in different ways – how trusting in local people enables them to improve their communities and make a difference for the long term.

It’s a programme that would have appealed to Elinor Ostrom, the American political economist who won acclaim by conclusively debunking the idea that assets had to be managed by either markets or states and showed the value that could be realised when communities come together and manage their own needs.

Bringing Ostrom’s ideas into the present

Think Big, Act Small, the recent report by New Local, funded partially by Local Trust, is a timely reappraisal of Elinor Ostrom, highlighting her renewed relevance and importance to current times. At the heart of her work are three guiding principles:

  • Locality – that systems and approaches should be designed for specific places;
  • Autonomy – that the rights of communities to create and run local systems must be respected; and
  • Diversity – that each community is different – and will take different approaches

Report author Simon Kaye, goes into more detail in his blog for Local Trust.

It is no surprise that “Ostronomics” is having a resurgence. The problems faced in communities across the country are overlapping and intersectional. Old-school top-down one-size-fits-all approaches to policymaking have failed to deliver for people in communities that feel they have been left behind, and are increasingly impatient to see a reality behind promises they will be “levelled up”.

If traditional policymaking has failed to deliver change, the work of Elinor Ostrom paints an outline of how we might begin to think of some solutions to these overlapping issues.

Making social infrastructure a priority

But for community to become a new centre point for government policy, we need to ensure it is fit to engage.  When Local Trust started out with the Big Local programme in 2012 (coincidentally the year of Ostrom’s death), one of the key barriers we found in many places was a lack of social infrastructure. Where communities lacked “hard social infrastructure” – places to meet – and “soft social infrastructure” – existing community activity and networks – those communities often found it harder to get going and start to make a difference.

Communities want the opportunity to come together and make decisions about their lives.”

Work commissioned by Local Trust from OCSI on ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, has shown that when already deprived communities lack this social infrastructure, and broader connectivity to other places, they suffer from significantly worse socio-economic outcomes than all other areas. In many ways this reflects the work of another important thinker on community, Robert Putnam, who is visiting the UK soon to promote his important new book due to be published later this week.

What do residents think?

Communities also know this. Recent polling by Survation showed that the one thing residents in ‘left behind’ communities want most is places to meet. They want the opportunity to come together, connect and make decisions about their lives collectively. The same polling also found that when they get involved in the community, residents “really can change the way their area is run”.

Whilst to date conversations about levelling up have often focused on regional economic imbalances, or the need to rebuild town centres, for many residents of left behind areas, those priorities can feel a million miles away from their needs and ambitions. Local neighbourhoods must be at the centre of any agenda to ‘level up’. To find a place to start, perhaps we might look to Elinor Ostrom.