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The legacy of Big Local: history, with a future

As the Big Local programme enters its final phase, Angus McCabe, Senior Research Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre, explores what Big Local areas are leaving behind – and what they are taking with them into the future.

We tend to think of legacy as what is left behind: money from a departed relative, the much-loved family heirloom, fading photographs and memories.

Through the Our Bigger Story study, we’ve been following the journey of 15 Big Local areas over 10 years – but as the Big Local programme enters its final phase, what is striking in our recent reports, Building Big Local Futures, is that final word: futures.

Big Local partnerships are not looking back, with nostalgia, at a specific funding stream that is drawing to a close. They are not sitting on past glories, reminiscing about the freedom they had to make a difference in their communities, thanks to the flexibility of the Big Local model.

Instead, many are looking to the future and using the learnings of the past 10 years as a platform, on which to build long-term visions for and with local residents.

Tangible and intangible legacies

This is not to say that certain legacies are not important.

In our report Towards legacies for people and places [PDF], Big Local partnership members talk about the physical assets that are now in their communities, that were not there before the programme started: the new community hubs and other community facilities, and the improved green spaces.

They also reflect on the improved access to local services and the number of community activities and groups stimulated by Big Local, either through access to small grants or through the advice, support and encouragement offered by Big Local partnership members and workers.

More than this, they talk about their plans for those assets. Those hubs and green spaces are, quite literally, the building blocks that can sustain local activities and bring together community groups and services.

But most of all, partnership members talk about the more intangible legacies of the programme. They talk about people, from the confidence local residents have gained in setting up local groups, to the skills and knowledge acquired over 10 years to sustain those groups and establish the new structures that will be the successors to Big Local partnerships.

It’s a very different approach from only protecting and recalling the past.

At the end of 10 years, there’s still going to be a cliff edge if you don’t make it … happen … It’s about how we pass on our legacy and … how we start to nurture now other people to take on roles.” – Big Local partnership member

Making community power a reality

In some Big Local areas there is even more in place. As our report Building systems of community connection and control [PDF] argues, in these areas there is a strong and thriving community-led infrastructure in place.

So, what do we mean by community-led infrastructure?

Community-led infrastructure is more than physical infrastructure – those buildings and spaces that facilitate community activities – and more than promoting greater access to local services.

It’s about building effective relationships and connections within communities, and between communities and external agencies, that can make community power and influence a reality. It’s about building a belief in communities that they ‘can do’ (rather than just being ‘done to’).

Community-led infrastructure is about building (yes, that word again) a vision for the future and a belief that resident-led, grassroots action can affect positive change in the longer term.

It is about getting the communities to be the leaders, not the followers…” – Big Local partnership member

History that has a future

Of course, challenges lie ahead. In some areas, the financial future beyond Big Local funding is not secure and the looming inflation crisis, alongside rising living costs, will impact most on the country’s poorest neighbourhoods.

If we have learned anything from community responses to COVID-19 it’s that communities are hugely resourceful in responding quickly and adapting to changing needs in a crisis – but they can’t do it all on their own. This is where the idea of community-led infrastructure, of residents holding the relationships and having a voice and a place at the policy table is so important.

This is the real legacy of Big Local.

So where are we now? The history of Big Local and of each individual partnership is still being written. More will be produced about legacies. But it is a history that has a future.

Our Bigger Story is an innovative, multimedia evaluation following the journey of 15 Big Local areas over 10 years. Read more about the study here.