Matt Leach, Chief Executive at Local Trust, reflects on how communities prioritise when given the opportunity to make choices about how money is spent.
Earlier this summer, Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham travelled to Brinnington near Stockport, to cut the ribbon on the opening of The Hub – a fantastic new community space for the area. News crews were out in force; it was a moment for the community to come together and celebrate a massive shared achievement.
It is exactly the sort of community facility, new research published today by Local Trust and OCSI (Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion) indicates, is likely to be critical to local communities particularly in more deprived areas. The research suggests that where neighbourhoods lack:
- civic assets (places to meet, pubs, community centres and libraries and green spaces);
- connectivity – physical in the form of good transport links as well as digital;
- an active and engaged community.
These tend to be associated with markedly worse social and economic outcomes than in other equally deprived areas.
This very much chimes with our experience of administering the Big Local programme over the last seven years. Big Local provides no-strings-attached funding of £1m each to 150 different neighbourhoods across England. The research findings also fit our knowledge of what communities prioritise when given the opportunity to make choices about how money is spent.
Many Big Local partnerships invest in building or sustaining places to meet; others invest in rebuilding local civil society capacity and supporting the development of local micro-enterprise; and a lot of areas have focused on projects which connect residents into local labour markets and seek to overcome transport difficulties.
When Brinnington opened their hub, it wasn’t just a moment of shared celebration, but also one of defiance. Just weeks earlier, local people had been appalled at a report in the Guardian which tagged their community as “the most depressed in Britain”. Visiting Brinnington, it is hard to avoid the problems it faces: like many poorer neighbourhoods in former industrial areas, it suffers from unemployment, health inequalities, anti-social behaviour and wider social deprivation.
But if you take the time to meet and talk with local people, what you get is a profound sense of togetherness that defines the place; this is a community where people care about their neighbours. And if you visit those involved in the Brinnington Big Local, you’ll meet some incredible, imaginative and resourceful local residents committed to making their neighbourhood a better place to live, whether its setting up a community cinema, running a thriving growing collective or launching The Adventurers’ Guild, a unique group using tabletop gaming to combat social isolation.
What is common to all of those activities is that they bring people together, building trust, combatting loneliness, strengthening civil society at a micro level, and in doing so, reinforcing the bonds, the social capital, that enables a community to thrive and succeed. The sorts of outcomes that can only happen with access to places to meet and an active, engaged local community willing to turn out to make them a success.
The Local Trust/OCSI research report published today is intended as a contribution to what is becoming an important debate about how we ‘level up’ areas often described as ‘left behind’. At a national level, the Alliance for the Community Wealth Fund has put forward ambitious proposals for funding a transformation in the social infrastructure of our most ‘left behind’ communities. Brinnington has got its Hub; but there are more that would benefit from the funding and support that has made it possible.