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Community spirit

This is not a litter pick!

As the first Big Local neighbourhood reaches the end of the programme, Local Trust CEO Matt Leach celebrates the achievements of Cresswell, Ellington, Linton and Lynemouth Big Local, and highlights its importance to current debates about levelling up and community power.

In 2012 the National Lottery Community Fund embarked on a big, bold experiment.  It identified 150 neighbourhoods across England, places that the stats showed had “missed out” on their fair share of lottery grants in previous years, despite high levels of deprivation. Each of those communities was allocated £1m, with local people challenged to make all the decisions about where and how it was spent.

A model to learn from

The idea was simple but brilliant. Most of the areas selected hadn’t received their fair share of lottery funds because there wasn’t enough civic activity or strong enough community organisations in the area to apply for grants. By handing money directly to local people – community-led funding in its purest form – the hope was that not only would neighbourhoods get funds to compensate for the money they had missed out on in the past, but by coming together to make decisions and use the funding to drive change locally it was hoped local community organisations would emerge, develop and grow.

Ten years on from its launch, Big Local has perhaps attracted less attention than other shorter-term, less radical community-focused grant schemes. But with the first Big Local area completing their spend this summer, and devolution, community power and levelling up competing for their place at the top of the political agenda, it might be time to look at the lessons it offers as a model for harnessing the power of local people to transform their own communities.

Return on investment

The area to reach this milestone, Cresswell, Ellington, Linton and Lynmouth (CELL) Big Local – a collection of former mining villages on the Northumberland coast – isn’t entirely typical of the places where Big Local is happening. To be fair not many communities anywhere have a tumbledown fourteenth century castle in the heart of their local neighbourhood. But the strength of Big Local – which includes many areas located in deprived communities in other post-industrial parts of England – has always been the way that its long-term commitment of funds and asset-based approach has enabled it to work to make the most of all each neighbourhood has to offer. Developing and growing the potential of local people, with the aim of delivering value above and beyond the funds originally committed.

And the way in which the stuff that local people choose to fund – whether its castles, litter picks, food projects or knit and natters – is often less important than the ways in which all of those activities and initiatives help transform how communities feel.  They enable the building of new institutions in communities that have often seen what existed in the past disappear. They create opportunities for friendship and association in communities where loneliness and isolation is a major problem. They help build the capacity for a local people to mobilise to address community-wide crises, as we saw during COVID and now, again, with the cost of living crisis.  They contribute to local identity and pride in place.  Something captured in a great new video we are launching today to celebrate the achievements of many of our Big Local areas.

Thriving, resilient communities

That focus on building community capacity and power has – uniquely – allowed Big Local (and local people) to flex and adapt in what has been a decade of unprecedented turmoil and change.  When Big Local was originally conceived, austerity hadn’t bitten, COVID didn’t exist, and we were just getting over 2008’s economic turmoil. That the community organisations formed around Big Local have continued to thrive and drive change in their neighbourhoods is a tribute both to the strength of the Community Fund’s original vision, and even more so the incredible energy, resilience and commitment of local people, when given the opportunity to make decisions and take power into their own hands.

‘Left behind’ communities need investment

Whilst Big Local (and Local Trust) is coming to an end in 2026-27, it is clear that there are still many other neighbourhoods and communities that would benefit from the sort of long term, patient, asset-based, supported funding approach that underpinned the Big Local model. Research carried out for the APPG on ‘Left Behind’ Neighbourhoods has highlighted how, 10 years on from Big Local, deprived communities which are low in social infrastructure still get up to 70% less grant funding than other equally deprived places.

That need, and a belief in the power of communities to take control and make a difference for themselves is what has inspired the Community Wealth Fund campaign – the cross-party, cross-sector campaign to commit some of the next wave of dormant assets to supporting long term community-led change in ‘left behind’ communities across the country. With a consultation on dormant assets due next month, many will be looking to communities like CELL Big Local as an inspiration for what they might be able to achieve, given funding, support and time.

If you’d like to find out more about the story of CELL, do read this profile of Barry Mead or listen to Episode 2 of our Community Power Podcast series.

About the author
Matt Leach

CEO, Local Trust