New resident-led regeneration scheme aims to transform communities

New resident-led regeneration scheme aims to transform communities
The Guardian, by Rosie Niven

Many of the big-budget regeneration projects since the 1980s made attempts to involve residents in their community’s transformation, some more successfully than others.

The Big Local is the latest programme to attempt resident-led change at neighbourhood level. Through it, the Big Lottery Fund in England is investing up to £200m in 150 neighbourhoods. Each area – covering between 3,000 to 10,000 people – receives an endowment of at least £1m to be spent over 10 years.

There are some key differences between the Big Local and earlier schemes. While earlier regeneration schemes have been largely professional-led, even where residents were involved, decision-making in Big Local areas rests firmly with boards requiring a minimum of 50% resident representation.

Each area is assigned a representative, who works with local residents and acts as a mediator with the Local Trust, which oversees the programme. Support is also available from a designated ‘locally-trusted organisation’, but councillors, local service providers and consultants are only called upon where they are wanted by residents. Some might see giving groups of inexperienced people budgets of up to £1m as a risk, but 18 months into the programme, the Big Local areas are showing encouraging signs of budgetary responsibility and long-term thinking.

Over the lifetime of the project, the north Northfleet Big Local area in Kent has seen the growth of new community enterprises and the development of a project providing access to work in the nearby Bluewater shopping centre. Carl Adams, who worked as community development worker on the project, says it has not drawn on much of the funding that has been allocated, but a lot has been achieved already.

"If this became all about spending the money, then we would have all failed," says Adams, from Action with Communities in Rural Kent. "You can use the money to get people to the table, but it has to be secondary."

In addition to his work at Northfleet, Adams is now working with two newer Big Local projects in Ramsgate and Dover as a Big Local rep, he hopes to transfer some of the lessons from Northfleet to the other two projects.

Adams says that one lesson he has passed on was to encourage risk taking where appropriate. "We took chances on people that others wouldn’t work with," he says. "We considered investing in entrepreneurs despite them having a bad credit history."

Ross Miller, a resident in the Dover Big Local area explains that this "clean slate" approach is one his project is keen to replicate, having seen its impact in Northfleet. "We are interested, not in people’s history, but what they want to do in the future."

Debbie Ladds, chief executive of the Local Trust, says that this kind of willingness to innovate is one of the characteristics of the Big Local areas that makes it distinct from more traditional community regeneration projects. But she adds that this innovation has been in combination with a cautious approach to spending funding allocations, which can be used for both grants and to attract social investment.

"Residents are being very cautious with the money, often more so than established organisations and local authorities are. I am impressed that communities are talking to us about achieving long-term change."

This cautiousness about spending the allocation is evident in several Big Local areas including Dover, North West Ipswich and the William Morris ward of London’s Waltham Forest. In the steelworks town of Corby a group of residents with no community development training exemplifies this.

Local resident George Hill of Corby’s Kingswood and Hazel Leys Big Local says the Big Local has taught him not to rush in. "We are careful, this isn’t a race," he said. "People within the panel are naturally frugal – I don’t know if that has something to do with being Scottish, or the responsibility of being on the partnership."

One issue for several Big Local projects has been the challenge of enabling residents to manage the project in a way that is sustainable. While some areas have been reluctant to spend their funding on hired support, others have chosen to employ support workers. One of these workers is Grace Williams, a volunteer coordinator at the William Morris Big Local, who is also a resident of the ward.

She says that the decision to use the budget has been a good one for the area, but the challenge now is to build up residents’ skills to sustain that work. "I think initially there was a very strong feeling that the paid worker would do this for six months and then that person would just go and the volunteering would happen. I think you always need someone that can pull the whole thing together with this sort of project."

North West Ipswich, which became the first area to have their plan approved and will be the first project to receive their funding, has also benefited from professional input. Their support worker works four days a week for the Big Local area. Residents’ board chair Ron Impey says her contribution has helped to keep the project "on the straight and narrow".

But Impey says the challenge for the future is sustaining this work and keep it moving. "It’s very much a learning process at the moment. We are trying to keep everyone on board and we’ve been fortunate so far." There are mechanisms to share lessons learned between the different areas through events and get-togethers.

Reflecting on the achievements of the programme, Debbie Ladds says the biggest has been its success in involving residents directly. "Some of these people have never been involved in their communities previously. That’s the brilliant thing."