Everybody needs good neighbourhood programmes
“We want to be super-local, seriously neighbourhood-based and almost microscopically granular” so said Francis Maude, last year, on the government’s proposed Communities First Fund.
Indeed “the neighbourhood” is the location for a number of government initiatives including the proposed neighbourhood plans.
This government is not the first one to decide that they want programmes to be delivered at the neighbourhood level. What lessons can we learn from previous neighbourhood level government initiatives?
I was prompted to ask this question after meeting John Hitchin, who had worked on the EC1 New Deal for Communities (NDC) programme. He gave me a copy of their evaluation report. Unlike many evaluations it is an accessible and practical document that provides some food for thought.
So here are three lessons I would draw from previous neighbourhood level programmes;
- Participation should be broadly understood
Sometimes the idea of resident involvement, which was central to the New Deal for Communities (NDC) programmes, translated into creating ways for residents to be involved in the NDC itself, rather than participation in community life.
One of the problems with the state itself creating spaces for resident involvement is that the state can then, in turn, ignore the views of these residents. JRF’s work on participation in Haringey starkly illustrates this point. They looked at the different mechanisms that residents could be involved in decision making in the local authority, the primary care trust and in the police. They found that public officials were very sceptical of the ‘representativeness’ of any residents that got involved in these mechanisms and this enabled them to discount views that were challenging. There was little evidence that resident involvement had actually materially changed practice or policies.
Rather than seeing participation through the lens of public services and encouraging residents to become more involved with neighbourhood initiatives, future neighbourhood programmes could look at ways in which they can support people to be more involved in community life.
- Support community groups to be themselves
Sometimes the additional funding that comes with neighbourhood programmes means that local community groups change their behaviour in order to obtain money from these programmes.
This can be more or less subtle. Community groups can start to adopt the organisational culture of the public sector (KPIs and all), start running new programmes which are not their priorities but the priorities of their funder, or spend more of their time understanding the needs of their funder rather than the needs of the people who use their services.
Finding ways to support community groups without drastically altering their culture or behaviour is no easy trick. I have mentioned before the Grassroots Grants programme, which I think had some success in supporting small community groups that had not previously received government money. Looking closely at this programme could pay dividends for those who are designing new neighbourhood programmes.
- Don’t top up core funding
The temptation for programmes aimed at improving neighbourhoods is to spend money making the area cleaner, greener and safer, since these are invariably the priorities for residents.
There is a real danger that this will mean that those public services that are already responsible for these things will use this as an excuse to lower their levels of service.
More subtly, when a neighbourhood programme tops up existing public services it can make it harder to influence the way in which those services are delivered. Changing the culture of existing public services was one of the most notable achievements of some of the neighbourhood management pilots, and the idea of “bend the spend” should be maintained as a focus of neighbourhood programmes.
New governments want to make an impression. They want to make it clear that they are distinct from the previous government. That is understandable. This article is not an argument for preserving programmes or initiatives that went before. Rather, it is an argument that we should learn from what went before.