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Power and leadership

Civil Society Futures inquiry: Ignoring the rain

When Abbas Najib, Abid Zaman and a few neighbours came together to improve a patch of waste ground at the centre of their community in Lidget Green in Bradford, their first thought wasn’t about structures or organisation, it was getting the rubble and broken glass cleared from where their children wanted to play. Some landfill grant helped meet the cost of extracting the concrete and laying new grass, but when it came to getting the last of the rubble removed so that the council could mow the area they dug into their own pockets to make it happen.

On a rainy Thursday morning this November, they stood together at the launch of a new all-weather football pitch and cricket nets on the same site. A well used path across the neatly mowed Spencer Fields connects the nearby school to local houses, with new lighting enabling children to walk to and from home safely on dark winter days. Abbas and Abbid, together with the other members of the Big Local partnership for the area, had decided that a priority for spending their funding from the Big Local programme was to complete the work they started almost ten years earlier.

When we talk about the importance of power, accountability, connection and trust – the key principles underpinning the welcome new report from the Civil Society Futures inquiry – you don’t have to look far beyond Spencer Fields for examples of what that might mean in practice.

As local residents wanting to achieve positive change in their area, their connection to place was never in question; the changes they were trying to deliver related to land that sat – for some – over their own garden fences.Getting a group together to start to deal with it was as much about convincing neighbours to join in as negotiating with remote external agencies.

Ten years on, they’ve been able to finish the job they started as a result of money and decision-making being devolved to local people through the Big Local programme; and by putting power and resource directly in the hands of the community, it has enabled them to broker unique partnerships with both the local council and the nearby school to enable the project to happen.

It hasn’t been easy or straightforward – plans to improve the Greenmoor Big Local area needed endless consultation and negotiation.But that was balanced by the inherent trust that came from being local people looking to deliver improvements to a shared community resource; and the natural accountability that comes from proximity – its’ easier to explain decisions and share challenges when meeting someone in the local shop or the school gate than through any number of official statements or freedom of information requests.

The last decade and a half or more has seen some parts of civil society shifting business models – from user driven to commissioner defined services; from local and connected to consolidated and efficient. But as the inquiry highlights in today’s report, to thrive in the future, civil society needs to invest in local communities, building trust and – critically – distributing power. It’s a mission that is as much about changing society as transforming civil society. A good place to start to think about how to get there might be on a green field in Bradford, now thronging with children playing together, ignoring the rain.

Civil Society Futures is a two-year independent inquiry into the future of civil society in England, the first major inquiry of its kind for over two decades.