A Better Way place – what would it look like?

Note of a Better Way dinner discussion, 26 November 2018  

 Summary of key points                                            

  • It is vital to create a sense of agency amongst local people – a kind of constructive sense of entitlement to a better life – to make this work. 

  • Building connections between people and within communities is necessary so that change can be community-led.

  • Design and social infrastructure matters. Meeting spaces are important and communities can be designed to be inclusive and to facilitate connections, or not.

  • Communities do have ‘hidden’ resources on which to build, as demonstrated by the closing down of streets to cars to create play and meeting spaces for communities.  Publicly owned land or buildings are another such resource.  New funds are nonetheless needed to enhance social infrastructure in some communities; but local people can contribute eg through the creation of locally owned energy companies; or community shares; or through business donations to local wealth funds.

  • Funding of staff time to make things happen is important too, including funded social connectors, as exist in the Hackney and Hastings examples discussed.

  • A Better Way place would work for everyone in the community and be designed through its housing and communal spaces to encourage social connections.  It would have a high street devoted not just to commercial but also community activities and places to meet.  Businesses would be committed to their communities and business rates could be used to incentivise healthy high streets and good employment practices.

In more detail..

Jess Steele opened the discussion drawing on her own experience in Hastings.  Often neighbourhoods are faced with a false choice between gentrification and decline.  Capital gains resulting from regeneration were often lost to the community itself, whereas taking over ownership of a big community building tethered gains to the community.  To make it happen, you needed a group of enthusiastic people but there are people from every background who can do it.  They were now trying to develop a ‘common treasury of adaptable ideas’ to attract other people to Hastings and create a fund of ideas others could use.

 Igniting an impulse to act and a constructive sense of entitlement

We discussed the fact that one of the challenges was lack of time and also, amongst those who had time, such as the unemployed or retired people, igniting the impulse to act.  Creating a space to meet can help.  A sense of personal agency is critical, we concluded, but education can kick it out of us, and many people are just shattered by  the problems of making ends meet and managing the precariousness of their lives, for example, created by zero hours contracts or universal credit.  This sense of agency can be much stronger in affluent communities.  An example was given of a threat to a park in St Albans and how the local residents stopped it from happening, and now run the park themselves.  If everyone had the ‘sense of entitlement’ that these mainly middle class residents demonstrated, local and national government would be challenged far more successfully than it is.

Shared leadership and common goals

It was agreed that shared leadership and common goals is vital to transforming a place.  Although in theory the voluntary sector might play a leading role, at present it tends to be focused on the money and lacks agency. 

 Could collective impact, place based approaches help transform a neighbourhood?  This could create its own problems, especially if finance is linked to it, as in the West London Zone, we were told.  It requires some organisations to give up doing things, which they may resist.  It also depends on common measurement approaches in real time.  Measures are often driven by an external player and there is an underlying lack of power in this situation.  It has happened in the States successfully but family foundations that are financing this are more generous so there is not a problem of scarcity.  The USA is further advanced on measurement.

 Context matters

We discussed how the context in London and the South East and many northern cities was very different with austerity hitting harder in the north.  Many more play spaces had been closed, for example, and finding funds for repairs of buildings was far more of a challenge.  The economy was worse.

 In Newcastle, the choice between gentrification and decline did not exist.  Local charities were going under. One building had been given to a charity on a 99 year lease but this was undercapitalised and went bust.  Even where there was money, a top down approach can undermine otherwise good initiatives.  The Big Lottery had funded a participatory budgetary exercise in one community which led to a decision to reclaim the lanes behind their estate.  But in the end this was undermined by fly-tipping and the local council - without consultation - deciding to use the space for communal bins.  In Newcastle, the answers lay more in bringing services together than community ownership.  There was money in Newcastle, near the centre, but it was a struggle for less advantaged parts of the city to get hold of it. 

 Good design to promote social connections

It is often said ‘get it right for children and you get it right for everyone’.  UNICEF has a framework for creating child-friendly cities through the participation of cities, though this in itself is not sufficient.  Hackney was currently advertising for a post to put this into practice.  The Mayor is very interested in the design of the environment and housing.  It is important that children have safe places to play unsupervised, ideally in front of people’s homes, and this helps build social capital within a community.  In Hackney, they were closing streets for children to play in for 2 hours, funded by Hackney’s public health budget.  London Play have described children as social pollinators, and in Hackney not just children but also adults come out and take up roles like stewarding and making tea.  Importantly, this had happened not spontaneously but by Hackney creating a part-time worker, and equally importantly this was a local resident from one of the estates, who could facilitate peer to peer activity.  Around 50 streets were involved, 30-40 actively.

Building community wealth

We talked about the importance of social infrastructure – not just public services within a community but also its buildings and built environment and the social capital or connections within it.  Social assets are created and maintained not just by public sector resources but also by the community and social sectors and the private sector.  How could we build a social infrastructure fit for the 21st century and also tackle disparities between communities?

 One idea that Caroline Slocock has been pursuing is a national Social Wealth Fund which might draw on public land as one of its assets and might also help seed local wealth funds which could also be supplemented from various sources.  Bristol had established independently managed funds which included donations from local businesses, for example.  There were also many local authorities which had set up not for profit businesses, for example, for solar energy, and some were setting up recycling waste businesses, which could generate funds for this purpose.  There are community share schemes and also wealthy people who had attachment to a community they’d grown up in might be prepared to contribute, to give other examples.

 What would a Better Way place look like?

Finally, we talked about what a Better Way place would look like.  It would be designed around people, with pedestrianised areas and centres in which people don’t just shop but can meet and carry out communal and educational activities.  These communities would work for everyone and be inclusive to people of all ages and backgrounds.  Housing developments would be designed to encourage contact and to get people to work together and would have built in social infrastructure.  There might be communal gardens in addition to private space, car sharing schemes, places to meet etc (nb contrast some new developments where seating is made deliberately uncomfortable and places for young people to congregate are actively designed out). In some countries, ‘parklets’ have been created out of parking spaces and pop up shops have taken the place of cars. Local businesses would be committed to their communities.  Business rates might be used as an incentive eg higher rates for harmful businesses like gambling and lower rates for those that pay the living wage.