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Local economies

Let’s fund places not projects

Place-based funding is making a come-back, and for good reason, writes Matt Leach, chief executive of Local Trust.

A month after arriving at Local Trust I blogged on the re-emergence of interest in place-based funding and community-led approaches some 6-7 years on from the failure of Big Society, and why – this time round – it is critically important that we get it right.

It’s a come-back that is long overdue, but unsurprising. Increasingly funders are recognising that traditional grant-led approaches to funding tend to reward those with the knowledge and skills to access funding, rather than committing funds where they might be most needed or have greatest impact.  Focusing on people and place can help better target investment and maximise impact on multiple levels.

The right time for a joint event

With multiple strands of work on place now underway across both government and the wider policy and funding communities, the Power of Place conference held in Sheffield on 25 April, supported jointly by Local Trust, Lankelly Chase, Power to Change, Locality and Collaborate was well timed. The conference brought together over 100 policy makers, funders, academics and community activists to start to answer some key questions, including:

  • What is the power of place? And why is it important now?
  • What do we mean by place-based working?
  • What does place-based change look like in practice?

Local people in control

As the UK’s biggest place-based funder, it’s a conversation we’re incredibly excited to have been a part of.  For the last five years, Local Trust has been working to explore and develop approaches to funding local people in communities, and learning about the challenges, demands and opportunities that come with it.

Since 2012, with support from a National Lottery Community Fund endowment, we have provided 150 communities with £1m each to spend over 10-15 years on improving their local areas.  Many of these areas were neighbourhoods that faced challenges across multiple deprivation issues, but that had missed out on previous funding and support.  Typically, they lacked significant civic infrastructure and social capital, which may have contributed to them failing to access funding in the past.

New body of evidence

The only criteria we set were that areas needed to spend their money for the benefit of their local area through a partnership of local residents, and on the basis of a shared plan.  Beyond that, we tried hard not to set any rules, but rather to support local people to define their own organisational structures and establish their own priorities and ways of working (with Local Trust providing light touch support, training and advice where they asked for it).

And it is starting to provide a growing body of evidence around the immense (and often untapped) potential that can be released by putting local people in control of decision making about their own areas and giving them the resources to develop their own solutions.  Since 2012, we’ve seen:

  • how embracing resident-led, bottom up funding enables opportunistic, small scale interventions that might be missed (or fall below the radar) of top down funders, enabling system-wide challenges to be taken on by those with a best view of how they impact on the ground
  • communities increasingly demonstrating their ability to act as collective problem solvers and active delivery partners rather than simply recipients of services or support – negotiating shared ways forward rather than having to campaign for someone else to acknowledge and deal with their most pressing issues
  • and, most of all, the extent to which place-based approaches can build the capacity, confidence and capability of local people to self-organise, and give them the tools to take responsibility for making a difference to the areas they live and work in.

Addressing deep challenges

With both national and local states’ facing limits on their ability to deliver the support and services they may have in the past, releasing the potential of local people to self-organise, self-fund and self-commission outcomes at a local level is likely to become ever more important as we approach the end of the current decade.

Over the last five years across the 150 Big Local areas we’ve seen how putting resources and responsibility in the hands of residents can have a transformative impact – on both individuals and communities – and achieve amazing things. But we’ve also learnt a lot about the challenges that come with adopting a place-based approach, the pitfalls that can be encountered, and the ways in which funders and decision makers need to change ways of working to make it work – for both funders and local residents.

Bringing the best ideas forward

As the Big Local programme matures, Local Trust will increasingly focus on sharing our learning with others starting to explore place-based funding, and those exploring broader approaches to empowering communities, including the recently announced Locality and Power to Change supported Commission on Localism.  We’re also hoping insights from the first five years of Big Local will inform our own major research initiative aimed at defining the future of Empowered Communities which will be reporting early next year.

We’re very aware that we’re still learning and that nobody has all the answers – the Power of Place conference was all about sharing knowledge and identifying where we need to learn more. There are huge benefits to be gained from working collaboratively, learning from one another and sharing different perspective and experiences.

That sits at the heart of our approach to the Power of Place Conference – a jointly supported conference, that drew on the strengths and insight of five very different sponsors – and its potential as a platform for a much wider community of thinkers, policy makers and practitioners to contribute and share their ideas, learning and experiences. With an incredible attendance list, and some fantastic insight and engagement over a packed day, it felt like one of the most important conversations of the year so far. You can continue it on Twitter using #PowerOfPlace hashtag.