Executive Summary: Civic Streets- The Big Society in action

Civic Streets: The Big Society in action
Max Wind-Cowie, DEMOS
10.06.10

Executive Summary

This report is based on extensive interviews and qualitative research within the communities of Castle Vale and Balsall Heath. It also seeks to learn lessons from previous initiatives and programmes aimed at driving regeneration in the UK.It uses evidence from evaluations, qualitative research and polling to explain the crucial principles that need to underpin a ‘Big Society’ approach. The report makes a series of recommendations, based on the following principles, which emerged during the course of the research:

• Time is money. One of the reasons that we are able to look at Castle Vale or Balsall Heath and see success is because they have been part of a process of regeneration that spans two decades. Government needs to ensure that its investment in communities is attached to, and reflective of, the long-term nature of community regeneration.

• Government needs to get out of the way. Money must continue to be provided to community groups but it must not be used to co-opt civil society in areas that are already deprived. Too often the attitudes and approaches of primary care trusts, local authorities and other state actors get in the way of communities. What is more, funding that comes from government is often used to exercise unhealthy levels of control over third sector
organisations – new funding and standards of cooperation are
needed.

• Democracy works. Communities that come together, establish a plan of action and consult the wider community (as happened in Balsall Heath and Castle Vale) have already demonstrated collective efficacy and commitment to improving their neighbourhoods. This is a vital first step, and should be a prerequisite for the kind of radical devolution of funding and power that this report promotes. A fundamental principle of any new approach to community regeneration should be the demand that community groups and activists demonstrate wider support from within their communities before gaining privileged access to assets, support or commissioning.

• Help people to help themselves. Community groups and charities that work hard to improve the lives of their neighbours require evidence to demonstrate their success. This evidence allows them to make the case for their work, secure funding and keep residents on side. Castle Vale and Balsall Heath have both benefitted from the Be Birmingham surveys that demonstrate soft outcomes such as resident satisfaction and engagement, but there are still problems because of the lack of base-line evidence on health, worklessness and crime.

These principles have led to the development of a series of key recommendations, the implementation of which would lead to a regeneration infrastructure that facilitated the development of community-led approaches.

Our recommendations are:

Introduce endowment funding
An important problem for those community groups that possess the will and vision to take charge of their local area is that funding for their attempts to regenerate and develop their communities is often complex to secure, unreliable and unpredictable. Government should build on the success of the Adventure Capital Fund, and other sign-posting and funding services that promote endowments. By transferring existing pots of money into single endowment funds, and operating them away from the centre, government can ensure that funding has the longevity needed to make a real success of regeneration. This is an important lesson from the case studies and from wider experience of regeneration – it needs to be fully learned by government and translated into policy – the money must be secure and accessible, and must follow agency; only when a community has demonstrated its collective efficacy and responsibility by coming together, developing a plan and consulting itself should assets begin to be transferred.

Establish evidence bases
There is a significant problem with the lack of reliable, localised data made available to communities. It is always important that recipients of state money are able to demonstrate their successful application of this money to the problems for which it was intended. In our current era of immense spending constraint it is all the more vital that charities and third sector organisations (such as those involved in community regeneration) are able to show what they have achieved. What is more, the provision of detailed local data may help to inspire further involvement and engagement in communities – realising the disproportionate levels of criminality, poor health, anti-social behaviour or even littering in your area may well act as a spur to the formation of exactly the kind of local activism groups that have had such a profound impact in Castle Vale and Balsall Heath.

The provision of local information and data needs to become the reflex of local government and its agencies – the default position. Data on crime, health statistics and worklessness levels are already recorded by the state and traceable to the neighbourhood level. This data should be updated in real time and made available through the internet so that communities can understand what is happening in their area and how resources are being used. In addition to real time, total place data for communities, available to all, local government should be given targeted resources for use in detailed polling of attitudes, resident satisfaction and perception.

This polling is undertaken in Birmingham and enables charities and housing associations to identify areas of concern and demonstrate the success of particular approaches and schemes. If we are able to improve the evidence basing for community regeneration we can better help communities to access private-sector funds. The development of innovative tools such as social investment bonds is an exciting new means of regeneration groups and local activists would be well placed to benefit from them if they were in a better position to demonstrate their success and establish a baseline of cost and outcome on which they could improve.

Introduce community cash back
In part, the purpose of gathering and making available the information above is to enable community groups to begin to demonstrate real savings on the cost of public services in their neighbourhoods. Aside from the obvious benefit for community groups in being able to demonstrate success to potential funders there should be a tangible, economic incentive for the community itself. Take the example of Balsall Heath’s activism in moving prostitutes from the estate.

There was a solid benefit for the state – in the form of the savings generated by the closure of the police force’s vice squad premises on the estate – as well as the benefit to the wider community of creating a safer and less threatening neighbourhood. We argue that where communities are able to demonstrate a tangible, financial saving for the state they should be able to retain a percentage of that benefit for use within the community. This ‘community cash back’ would incentivise activism at the neighbourhood level and help to ensure the longevity of successful activist groups – providing them with continued investment as they continue to achieve.

End ‘brand deserts’
Too often discussions about the ‘Big Society’ focus on the public sector and the third sector to the detriment of the private sphere. The Conservative Party has systematically ignored the power of businesses to effect real change in communities, and have not given enough consideration to the negative impact that the total absence of mainstream brands on deprived high streets can have. Corporations have been expected to have a social responsibility agenda for some time but, too often, that agenda has relied on the concept of corporations as ‘givers’ rather than ‘doers’. One of the profound changes brought about in Castle Vale – a ‘game changer’ as far as many of the residents were concerned – was the arrival of mainstream branded retailers on the estate. Many residents were dubious whether chains such as Tesco could be attracted to their estate, because of the stigma attached to the area and the perceived lack of consumers for mainstream grocery goods.

Being proved wrong in these assumptions was crucial to building confidence among the residents in the area about their capacity to renew their neighbourhood. Mainstream, high-street corporations should be encouraged to pursue corporate social responsibility through ‘doing’ – by expanding their presence to deprived areas in order to deliver jobs and confidence, and reduce the stigma of ‘brand deserts’. This can be achieved by offering time-limited tax breaks to corporations, to encourage their presence, and offering specific, tailored training – delivered through employment support and the local authority – to ensure that the potential workforce in deprived areas is ready to take up employment opportunities created by inward investment.

Declare independence
Communities like Castle Vale and Balsall Heath have been phenomenally successful at involving residents in their neighbourhoods. Castle Vale Community Housing Association and Balsall Heath Forum run an array of services that are vital to the social capital and overall improvement of the areas. But there are real frustrations. Although they have good relationships with local government they are not able to assume control of local services even when they are confident of their ability to do so more successfully. This sometimes means that charitable organisations run services in parallel with the state without any compensation or cost recovery.

Local groups such as those operating in Castle Vale and Balsall Heath should have a right to bid to run local services like Sure Start, employment services, preventative health services, parks and environmental services. If they are able to demonstrate a high level of local support – through referenda similar to the one that Castle Vale undertook (with 75 per cent participation) – they should be able to assume control of particular local services in order to pursue a remit of local control. This relates directly to the ongoing struggle to make local authorities take their contacting obligations seriously.

Local authorities are supposed to ensure that third and private sector suppliers are treated equally to in-house providers in supplying a range of public services, but all too frequently this fails to happen. This report recommends that where the levels of local support have been identified in the manner laid out above, and the cost can be demonstrated to be comparable to that of in-house provision, third sector providers should be able to establish themselves as the ‘preferred’ provider.

Introduce ‘micro mayors’
There is a real need for a more genuinely ‘local’ strata of local government in communities that are struggling to regenerate and renew themselves. In Birmingham (where Castle Vale and Balsall Heath are located), for instance, the Council has suggested that there ought to be annual elections for ‘micro mayors’ for units of 1,000–5,000 people. This would go some way to resolving the problems of political representation in the UK – we have the least elected representation of any nation in Europe and our local authorities typically represent far greater numbers of people – and a greater diversity of issues, problems and demographics – than their peer institutions in Europe and elsewhere.

‘Micro mayors’ should be elected to work on specific, neighbourhood-level issues (such as litter or anti-social behaviour) and be able to gather together resources available to the neighbourhood to achieve those aspirations – be it policing, NHS services, refuse collection or community support officers. Their funding could be provided through a small local levy, designed to raise funds to pay for the time of the ‘micro mayor’. This simple mechanism would provide a clear avenue to political legitimacy for residents who are concerned about specific problems in their area. It would also give communities a clear sense of leadership in their community if there was someone who was visibly and tangibly working for them.

Download full report here http://www.senscot.net/docs/civicstreets.pdf