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Power and leadership

Unravelling what resident-led and community leadership mean to Big Local

Our Bigger Story, the multi-media evaluation of Big Local, has been exploring what 15 areas think resident-led and community leadership looks like on the ground.

The complexities of the term ‘resident-led’

‘Resident led’ has been used as a short hand to describe what is different about Big Local: it’s not a top down, directed, change programme for, or imposed on, local communities. Residents in the lead seems simple enough – residents are in the majority on all partnerships – therefore Big Local is resident-led. Yet it is not as simple as that. In fact, understandings of who constitutes a resident – or an ‘authentic’ resident – was hotly contested in a wide range of events and interviews.

For some the only qualification to ‘qualify’ was to live on the Big Local patch. For others, those with particular roles in the area, such as councillors, were excluded, even if they lived in the area, because they were suspected of bringing different, political and agency agendas. It’s felt that they cannot speak as ‘residents’ alone.


Others took a much broader definition, asking whether resident-led is:

  • the composition of the partnership
  • the number of residents that turn up to activities/events

or is it:

  • those who respond to consultations
  • the level of local volunteering
  • the number of people following and responding to social media
  • the creation of new projects
  • gaining support from local groups and councils.

Some suggested the Locally Trusted Organisation (LTO) only works in the local area, is not part of a larger organisation, and has residents as employees and trustees. One person told us: “Personally I feel it’s all of the above!”

‘Residents’ defined themselves in many ways and wearing many hats – not only as living in a Big Local area but also as workers or volunteers with local projects, as professionals managing local agencies (or indeed working for Big Local itself) and as elected members.

Community leadership at a local level

Community leadership was less controversial. People talked about a sense of collective leadership rather than a charismatic individual leading from the top. Yet how the idea ‘played out’ at the local level differed. Three models were identified:

  • Model 1

Is all about the partnership – the majority of people’s time and energy is focused on recruiting and retaining partnership members who then act as an ‘executive’ for the community. All decisions go through the partnership.

  • Model 2

A dispersed model of leadership through the development of working groups. Residents, who may or not be on the partnership, are encouraged to come forward and form working groups around issues they feel passionate and want to do something about. Some decision making is devolved to the working groups rather than ‘funnelled’ through the partnership. In some cases, the working groups become constituted entities in their own right.

  • Model 3

The partnership is not that important. The Big Local role is about supporting neighbourliness, capacity building, networking and small community group development, perhaps through small grants.

It sees itself as enabling others to be more active and affective in creating ‘a better place to live’.

“Whether this is badged as ‘Big Local’ or not is of secondary importance.”

Different approaches

The 15 areas have approached Big Local, and ideas of resident-led and community leadership, differently:

  • some are aiming to support community organisations to build their capacity to be able to successfully bid for funds and grants to ensure their continuity and growth
  • some are focused on providing services for different groups – children, older people, vulnerable people
  • others have very local ambitions to bring people together through networks and promote ‘neighbourliness’
  • some have ambitious strategies to influence and benefit from large scale development around their area
  • others are more concerned with making sure residents have a voice and opportunities to be heard whatever the intended outcomes in a Big Local plan.

In truth, many are working with several of these approaches.

One clear distinction is between:

  • those whose focus and end result is on achievements in line with their Big Local plan
  • and those where Big Local is more of a stepping stone to build organisational capacity and reach aspirations way beyond the horizons of Big Local.

What they have in common is a desire for maximum engagement of the wider community. Big Local partnerships are not alone in seeing the difficulties of sustaining resident engagement in very long-term projects.

Angus McCabe, Mandy Wilson and Rob Macmillan from the Third Section Research Centre, University of Birmingham

Find more general information about Our Bigger Story and hear directly from Big Local areas about these debates by watching the Our Bigger Story film.