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Community spirit

Big Local reaches the halfway point

As the National Lottery celebrates its 25th birthday, this year we’re marking a milestone all of our own; the halfway point of Big Local.

The National Lottery celebrates its 25th birthday on 19 November. The £40billion raised for good causes in that time has made an incredible contribution to the civic life of our country.

Big Local – the 15 year, £220m programme administered by Local Trust – is the largest single endowment made in that time by the National Lottery Community Fund, funding a truly radical programme supporting resident-led change in 150 communities across England.

Local Trust’s chief executive Matt Leach reflects on the impact that amazing leap of faith has had on the Big Local areas that have benefited from it.

It’s been eight years since the National Lottery Community Fund provided Local Trust with £217m and the brief to do something radical and unprecedented with the money – give it to the residents of 150 communities across England to decide for themselves what it should be spent on. It would be an understatement to say that a lot has happened in that time and today we’re releasing The Halfway Point: Reflections on Big Local, which details what happened next.

Our aim is to report on progress so far, explain how the Big Local programme works, share some of the important lessons we’ve learnt and set out a few ideas about the future.

When Big Local was launched in 2011, it was in many ways a huge leap of faith. The underpinning belief — that by giving funds to communities with almost no strings attached, it might be possible to achieve outcomes that have eluded top-down public sector funding and more traditional project-based grant programmes — was untested.

Our approach to outcomes was to emphasise that the development of trust, confidence, skills and partnership at a local level was just as important as the sorts of hard project-based output measures that can dominate traditional funding models. And we were clear from the outset that local communities were free to use the money on the priorities they set for themselves, not shoehorn themselves into categories or approaches dictated by their funder.

This was, and remains, a brave and ground-breaking vision on the part of the National Lottery Community Fund, and on a scale that went well beyond experimental or pilot programmes in the past. And this has enabled significant investment in both supporting local communities to make the most of the opportunity – through access to training, mentoring, coaching, networking and wider partnerships – but also in a programme of research and evaluation to ensure that through the lifetime of the programme we are able to learn and share the insights and learning it has generated.

With decision-making power placed in the hands of local people, and the freedom to think imaginatively about what might create lasting change in their areas, the outcomes across 150 Big Local communities have, quite unsurprisingly, been incredibly varied.

In some areas, partnerships have dived in head-first, taking on new responsibilities, launching partnerships and driving change at an incredible pace. In others, communities have had to take more time to build the confidence and skills to address the needs of their neighbourhoods. The fifteen-year timeframe for Big Local has been able to accommodate both, and help ensure that skills and experience is shared freely between communities, both in person and online.

Just six weeks ago, almost 400 residents from 110 Big Local areas came together for two days to share learning and across the country on most other weekends, smaller groups are meeting and helping each other achieve change. Lottery funding has helped to create a movement and a community that spans the country, enabling self-created capacity building on a scale beyond what any single organisation could achieve on its own.

As Chief Executive of Local Trust, I aim to visit at least one Big Local area every week – by early next year I’ll have spent time in each of the 150 communities making up the programme. Each with a unique approach to using their money. Last week, at Thurcroft near Rotherham, I spent the day with proud local residents who built and funded a fantastic new community hub as they prepared for their annual fireworks display – a key priority for local residents wanting to find ways to bring their community closer together. The week before I cycled down the Tyne with a community cycling group funded by Gateshead Big Local, which has invested money in supporting local initiatives aimed at helping boost the wellbeing of individuals, particularly those currently excluded from the workforce. Earlier on in the year, I met a group of amazing young people in Ewanrigg, working together to tackle mental health issues on their estate.

What is always evident is the sheer determination of the residents to identify and face up to challenges others have sometimes turned away from, and the extent to which so many have surpassed the expectations they’d had of themselves and others. What they all have in common is incredible levels of energy, enthusiasm, passion and pride – in their communities and in what they’ve achieved together. Something we’ve tried to capture in the series of essays we’ve published telling the stories of the places that make up Big Local.

As we move into the second half of the programme, we are focusing on capturing and sharing what we have learnt, to demonstrate the power of resident-led change and – hopefully – to inspire others to take the initiative in handing over power and resources to local communities.

As the National Lottery turns 25, we’ll be celebrating and encouraging Big Local areas to join their local and regional celebrations. But first and foremost, we are asking areas to take stock, celebrate their successes and recognise how far they’ve come.

We’re halfway through, but there’s a lot more great stuff to come.