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The past and future of neighbourhood renewal policy

Local Trust’s chief executive Matt Leach examines previous governments’ approaches to neighbourhood renewal, and how we will bring learnings from the Big Local programme to this autumn’s party conferences.

Last week, I visited the Sylvester Community Trust in Fegg Hayes, on the northern edge of Stoke.

They operate out of a complex of former shipping containers containing a men’s shed, community kitchen and café, and are surrounded by a community garden with grow areas, meeting space and a woodland walk (rather remarkably built over a few days by DIY SOS, with a small amount of pump-priming funding from the Big Local programme).

Most importantly, the community trust provides a hub and a focus for local people looking to make a difference to their local community – mobilising volunteers, collaborating with the council, drawing in funding, providing support to those who need it – in ways that help make the whole neighbourhood a better place to live.

The potential of local communities to deliver change

That week also marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal, arguably the last major policy announcement by any government that recognised both the importance of addressing the challenges facing deprived communities through action and investment at a neighbourhood level, but also the potential of local people to take the lead in delivering that change.

Published a year after Labour came into power, it heralded more than a decade of sustained investment aimed at addressing concentrations of need in some of our most deprived communities, most notably through the New Deal for Communities (NDC) programme that followed quickly afterwards.

Uniquely for a programme of its scale, when the NDC came to be evaluated some fifteen years later, the conclusion was that the programme provided good value for money and that there had been considerable positive change in the 39 NDC areas, with benefiting neighbourhoods having been transformed over the decade of the programme.

Whilst its ambition was huge, the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal didn’t come from nowhere. It was founded in an understanding that many of the biggest challenges facing the then incoming Labour government – notably around achieving their ambitions around education, skills, crime, health and housing – were often concentrated in particular neighbourhoods. And that it wasn’t enough to address social problems in those areas piecemeal, rather they needed to be dealt with together, with both national and local government working together at a local level.

Approaches from across the political spectrum

But if the NDC was unique in its scale and scope, a clear understanding of the importance of a place-based approach to addressing key social problems wasn’t at the time the preserve of only one political party.

Five years before the NDC, Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment John Gummer launched the almost as ambitious Single Regeneration Budget, bringing together some 20 pre-existing funding programmes, and seeking to align local and national priorities around the transformation of deprived communities, often (though not exclusively) at a neighbourhood level.

What was different about the NDC was the extent to which it was genuinely long term and recognised at the outset that solutions parachuted in from outside, without the engagement of local communities, and with no one in charge of pulling together at a local level, were likely to fail.

Some of those NDC-originated local organisations continue to make a difference locally, including B-Inspired in Braunstone, Leicester, who are still making an incredible difference to their local community. And, looking back on the programme, we can see that the NDC had the most impact in those areas which best reflected its original ambition, with communities having the biggest influence on and involvement in leading and delivering change on the ground.

From Big Local to a Community Wealth Fund

Those principles – of neighbourhood-focused, long term funding and community leadership – are very similar to those that underpinned the Big Local programme at its outset. Since 2012, delivering the biggest-ever single endowment from a Lottery provider, Local Trust has supported 150 deprived communities around the country to come together to address problems and improve their local neighbourhoods.

We’ve provided a decade of support to build the confidence and capacity of local people in Big Local areas to establish their own initiatives and institutions, take the big decisions where needed, and pull together to tackle shared challenges and find their own solutions. And, as we’ve evaluated and learnt from our work, we’ve seen just how much can be achieved by taking that approach.

That learning, and the insight gained from it, has underpinned the successful cross-sectoral campaign for a Community Wealth Fund (for which the technical consultation is now live). But, looking back over the last decade, we have seen limited wider evidence of a neighbourhood-based approach to addressing major social problems being taken by either of the two main political parties.

But with extensive data showing the extent to which many of the key social outcomes concentrated in areas that are both deprived and lacking in social infrastructure – something likely to be highlighted further this autumn in the forthcoming report of the year-long inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods – it does feel like the time is right for a return to some of the policy principles that informed the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal.

Sharing our learning at this year’s party conferences – and beyond

This autumn, Local Trust will be supporting a range of activities and initiatives, seeking to draw and share learning both from our work and longer-term reflections from past community-led regeneration programmes.

  • We’ll be present at the party-political conferences, starting with an event at the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth on Monday 25 September. This event will focus on one of the foundational pillars of neighbourhood renewal – community governance – and we will be sharing our Manifesto for community and neighbourhood governance reform.
  • The following week, at the Conservative party conference in Manchester, we’ll be reflecting on the legacy of previous regeneration initiatives and looking ahead to how communities can be empowered to make change in their local areas.
  • Finally, we’ll be at the Labour party conference in Liverpool. With new faces in the shadow Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities team, it presents an important opportunity to hear the party’s vision for place and neighbourhoods in the lead up to the next general election. And we’ll be building on our emerging strand of work on how resilient communities can help relieve the burden on public services.

To coincide with the 25th anniversary of the publication of the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal, Local Trust has also commissioned the Centre for Regional Economic Social Research (CRESR) at Sheffield Hallam University to undertake a rapid review of significant neighbourhood regeneration and neighbourhood management initiatives over the past twenty-five years, with a view to identifying learning to inform future policy.

And I will be in conversation with the minister responsible for the strategy, Baroness Armstrong of Hilltop, on 17 October at Methodist Central Hall, London, which you can register to attend.

Our intention is that, together, this series of events and publications will be the starting point for a new cross-sector conversation about taking a national approach to neighbourhood renewal.

Follow @LocalTrust on X (formerly Twitter) for our party conference reflections.

About the author
Matt Leach

Matt Leach is chief executive of Local Trust.