Note of the Founding cell discussion on 18 February 2018

Steve Wyler started by pointing out that people have been promoting the importance of place and local activity for hundreds of years, for example in the cooperative movement, and yet Britain remains highly centralised.  Why?  He also said that, of all the Better Way propositions, this one had provoked the most debate and challenge.

What is meant by ‘local’?  Is it a local authority, or is it a community, and how small is that? Often the two were confused, and what was seen as devolution was just handing power to another form of centralisation, albeit below national level. 

Local meant a community, we thought.  But how far are communities  geographical in our digital age?  People used to meet in the pub, but some of that is now happening online.  Arguably, people are citizens of everywhere, and that ability to connect up with others in communities of interest wherever you live brings many advantages, helping to break down barriers, but it can also erect new ones.  We were told that millennials are the most integrated generation racially but the next generation is far less so, as social media and online dating are leading them to only ‘meet’ people from similar backgrounds, interests and political views. 

Geographical communities still matter just as much, the group concluded.  Place and personal contact cannot be replaced by the internet; and it is where the deepest and most lasting bonds are forged. Some communities remain very strong but it is also true that for others this is much less so, especially where there is a lot of movement of people.  In relatively deprived communities, social infrastructure (buildings and the built environment; services; and relationships) is often weak; and the poorest communities have been worst hit by recent cuts.  Promoting social action, facilities and services locally is especially important here.

There is a danger of ‘doing down’ such places and portraying them as lacking in  their own resources.  For example, people in Port Talbot taking part in an RSA workshop complained that they love where they live and are angry when journalists portray Port Talbot as a sink area.  The social sector colludes in this ‘problematizing/deficit based’ narrative as way of fund-raising.  We must push back on it.  Even the poorest communities have strong natural resources, both physical and social, and their internal strengths need to be harnessed, not undermined.   One of our members who had lived and worked in one deprived area of London talked of people streaming out in the morning to jobs outside the area, while white middle class people came in during the day, presenting themselves as ‘saviours’. 

Community led activity helps create strong communities; but one of the challenges has been a recent loss of community capacity, as more women are working, men are being more active in the home, and both increasingly have ‘two jobs’.  There’s less time for civic action, participation and volunteering, it was noted.

Not all local groups are of good quality.  Some are excellent, many are good, but it is equally true that some are sub-standard.  It is important to find a way of raising quality but unfortunately existing ways of measuring this often distort the picture.  This is shown by the fact that national funders often can’t spot the difference by the metrics they use; and in any case these kind of measures can  are being gamed.  National ways of measuring quality often underplay the value of local organisations and a number of our members are going to explore how to change this in a cross-cell working group. User satisfaction should be part of these new metrics, it was thought, and weight needs to be given to the value of building communities and relationships locally that local organisations bring.

One of the barriers to greater investment in local communities and organisations is a lack of trust.  In Denmark, where local authorities delegate the running of children’s homes to voluntary organisations, there is much more social integration and trust across social groups than in the UK.

The group was clear that this Better Way proposition should not be interpreted as being against all national or indeed regional or local authority activity.  We need to sort out more clearly the respective roles of national/regional and local and play to respective strengths.  Sometimes national standards are very important.  One person pointed to the issue of Academies and Free Schools.  They are intended to give more power to local communities but the reality is more complex.  Regret was expressed that they had abandoned national healthy eating standards. 

Ways needed to be found to get more resources to help strengthen community organisations.  We discussed the so-called Preston model, where contractors for public services are asked to spend their money locally, creating local jobs and prosperity.  Similarly, there were opportunities to develop local fund-raising, for example through community development foundations or community shares. Islington and Hackney Giving are other examples of how to do this.  Women’s Aid  is trying to set up a national charitable trust to fundraise nationally for local services. 

Finally, we discussed how local authorities and national charities can better support local organisations.  In Surrey, for example, they were exploring ways of commissioning that supported this. 

Some national charities are also looking for innovative ways to help sustain and nurture local organisations, for example taking advantage of their relative ‘cash richness’ through donations to use these resources to support independent local organisations that are struggling.  It is important to recognise that different communities will need different solutions.  Shelter is looking at this.  Scope is divesting itself of services to focus on campaigning.  Catch22 is acting as an incubator for some new organisations and supporting existing small charities by sharing common services. 

Issues to explore further:

·       What are the respective strengths and best roles for national, local authority and local organisations?

·       How can we develop better metrics to better demonstrate the value of local organisations?

·       How can we get more resources to local organisations, including through commissioning and fund-raising?

·       What can national charities do?