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Community spirit

Ten things we’ve learned from trusting local people

To mark the anniversary of Local Trust, our chair, David Warner reflects on what we have learnt from 10 years of trusting local people.

1. History matters

If your estate can’t shift a bad reputation which is a hangover from the 1980s then barriers stay intact. For example, the kids that live on the estate may think that a university education or art galleries aren’t for them. History affects communities and individuals and how they feel about their area, it affects prospects and determines the tangible and intangible assets that residents have to build on to improve their area for example, a strong industrial heritage. This is why effective place-based funding can’t take a one size fits all approach, designed from afar. It’s why local communities are best placed to reimagine their own futures.

Explore our interactive 1940-2020 timeline of community development

2. Time x money = power

It takes time for people to understand that they have power. Each Big Local community has £1.15m to use on priorities they identify, until 2026. Some would say it isn’t a huge sum, at roughly £100,000 per area, per year. But it’s enough to get noticed, to get a seat at the table. Communities have been canny at using their money to open doors, to attract match funding, to convene and sustain networks. Time and money have given Big Local areas a form of soft power that subtly shifts the dynamics of who is listened to and what’s decided locally.

Check out our research reports on Power in Big Local partnerships

3. Accountability is rife

Giving money directly to communities is thought to be exposing it to parochial interest groups or risking financial mismanagement. But in Big Local areas we’ve seen a scrupulous commitment to chasing value out of every penny spent. Back-door favouritism is a rarity, quickly spotted and vociferously called out. In its place we typically see residents hellbent on proving that the trust placed in them is deserved.

Podcast and essay: Counterweight – Local Trust

4. Leadership takes many forms

Traditional leadership practice doesn’t go down well in the context of volunteer-led community action. Free of management hierarchies, the ability to enable your neighbours to step up to new challenges, negotiate complex local relationships, ensure good governance and be inclusive requires a unique range of skills that would strike awe in the board room of any large corporate.

A new support programme for community leaders: Community Leadership Academy – Local Trust

5. Put the fun into funding

Carnivals, open-mic nights, dog shows and street art – Big Local shows the power of music and food to bring communities together, and create a sense of belonging. At Local Trust we design support that fosters creativity  – like Big Local Connects – and also genuinely accessible, we pay for volunteers’ travel, accommodation and childcare. We also formed a partnership of funders to support Creative Civic Change – a new approach to resident-led funding of the arts and creativity. And, many Big Local areas have learned to run meetings differently, so everyone can have their say. At the heart of this is the desire to benefit from the skills and talents of the broadest group of community members.

Blog: The 100-Year Plan – part one: Sowing the seeds – Local Trust

6. Incubate this!

Milk and two sugars? Community centres are good for more than a bit of company on a Wednesday afternoon (although that can save lives too). Getting people together means things happen: conversations, ideas, gigs, applications, sports competitions, carnivals, social prescribing, business start-ups, flood defences and the distribution networks that rescued us in a pandemic. Without places to meet, little happens, and potential goes unfulfilled. Open the doors to sustainable and accessible community spaces, and the power of Wednesday afternoons might surprise you.

Essay and podcast: Skittled out? – Local Trust

Toolkit: The Community Hub handbook

7. Just imagine if…

Close your eyes and dream about the place where you live and what it could become. Sharing a vision of an alternative future, then making it even better with the help of your neighbours is a powerful act. Not doing so means allowing other people to decide what happens to your neighbourhood. Big Local invites residents to come up with great ideas, consult widely and create a plan for their area. Local Trust provides funding, practical guidance and tailored support , but it is the willingness of residents, local volunteers, to invest time and energy – their kindness – that makes it happen.

The 100-Year Plan – part one: Sowing the seeds – Local Trust

Report: The future is ours – Local Trust

8. Let it go

Funding programmes structured around centralised goals may feel like a good use of money, but what if they block genuine learning or stifle the potential of communities to grow? When residents are given control of a budget and appropriate support they generally make good decisions. Checks and balances are essential but so is space for errors and wrong turns. There are now 150 places where brilliant, unexpected things can and do happen. Confidence and skills have grown. Most Big Local partnerships would say that there were a few things they’d do differently knowing what they know now – that’s true value for money.

Blog: Meet Elinor Ostrom – the intellectual hero of community power – Local Trust

9. Evidence

Big Local places a strong emphasis on research and evaluation. With ten years of research to draw on, we are continuing to test the hypothesis that underpins our work. Independent, long term, studies by the National Institute for Health Research and Third Sector Research Centre are also assessing the effectiveness of the programme.

Within a few weeks of COVID-19 arriving in the UK, we commissioned in-depth research to explore how 25 communities in England respond to COVID-19 and how they recover. This research is not limited to Big Local areas and is ongoing.

We have also undertaken research identifying the most ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods in the country. We co-founded an Alliance of organisations asking the government to provide dormant assets funding for these neighbourhoods through a new Community Wealth Fund. The Alliance now has close on 500 organisational members.

The notion that such funding is needed is spreading and gaining traction with organisations such as Onward, NLGN and IPPR contributing research on community power, community regeneration and climate change.

Left behind? Understanding communities on the edge – Local Trust

Report from Onward Turnaround: Learning from 60 years of regeneration policy

Report from NLGN: Community power: the evidence

Report from IPPR: The climate commons: How communities can thrive in a climate changing world

10. A fair wind

A massive thank you to the people living in 150 neighbourhoods in England who for ten years have worked hard on a voluntary basis  to make Big Local happen, transforming their neighbourhoods in the process. What is being achieved is inspiring and it is helping to build the case for wider political change.

The coming year – 2022 – marks ten years of Local Trust trusting local people. One shift since the programme started is that community power is now part of political rhetoric. We believe that the example of 150 Big Local areas will secure wider adoption of the principles we champion ensuring that more power and resources are transferred into the hands of communities.

Join the Community Wealth Fund alliance

Follow the All-Party Parliamentary Group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods.

About the author
David Warner

Chair of Local Trust