A rural community enterprise is cutting cost and red tape – as well as the grass

John-HoughtonThe Stewkley Community Enterprise Agency is demonstrating that efficiencies of scale do matter – but it’s the local scale, not the large scale, that creates great services.

The Agency struck a deal with Buckinghamshire County Council to cut the grass and carry out other low-level environmental maintenance – removing flyers, maintaining signs, cleaning gutters – in the village.

Instead of being delivered by large providers, with no connection to the area, the Agency’s team is made up of local people. This recycles the council’s investment in the service in the local economy, through their wages, and enables the individuals to develop their experience and skills.

The Agency’s connection to the area also means they can be more flexible. The team directly approach people for feedback on the quality of their work.

Speaking at the recent Seven Stories of Localism event, David Lett, the Agency’s founder and director of operations, emphasised the efficiency of delivering services at the most local level. It’s down here, at the local level, that you can tailor, you can gather and act on feedback, you can respond to changes in circumstances and need.

You can see below the brilliant visual minute of the session. Thanks to the guys at Visual Minutes for capturing the essence of David’s talk. I agreed with every word, and I know it’s a theme that many New Start readers care and think about a great deal.

stewkleyparishTrying to deliver services in bulk, at scale inevitably leads to inefficiency: services revert to the mean, neglecting the people or places with the most complex needs, creating greater costs in the long run; feedback loops become stranglingly long and complex; people and places are reduced to units to be managed, rather than complex living organisms to be developed.

Sure, you can deliver products at scale. Products built to a standard spec with little or no variation. It makes sense to produce and buy lawn-mowers in bulk, for example, but the lawn-moving service should be devolved and managed locally.

As interesting as David’s story was the reaction of the largely local government audience at the event; an equal mixture of admiration and astonishment. Surely this is the kind of initiative that everybody would like to happen but ends up being thwarted by process, by red tape? And there were plenty of stories of that happening being shared on the day, by the way.

Didn’t health and safety get in the way? No, the people employed by the Agency needed half a day training to get a certificate, that was all.

How did the county council break the contract with the existing supplier? They didn’t – they found some money to carry on paying the supplier while funding the Agency as an experiment.

How does the Agency know their team is doing it properly? It’s a village! The Agency staff would notice if they weren’t doing a good job. And if they didn’t, you can be sure someone would soon tell them.

At the end of his talk, many of the local authority officers in the audience approached David to hear more about how they could do something similar. I hope they felt galvanised to act afterward, to challenge the red tape and caution of their colleagues, and create community enterprise agencies everywhere.

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John Houghton

John P. Houghton is a writer on cities, housing and regeneration and a consultant at Shared Intelligence. Views are expressed here in a personal capacity.

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1 Comment

  • Mark

    Inspiring stuff. But how can this approach be transposed to an urban setting I wonder; places where social capital is often not as strong or consistent across a neighbourhood?

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