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15 minutes with… Matt Leach, chief executive of Local Trust

There are 150 Big Local partnerships, where people create a plan for their area, with Big Lottery funding. Five years since the programme was set up by Local Trust, new chief executive Matt Leach says the time is now right to share its learning

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On changing the dynamics of place. In the 150 Big Local areas we’ve found that when you give people time and resources and avoid unnecessary bureaucracy, things happen that wouldn’t happen through a top-down approach. The money is important and can bring people together but it becomes almost secondary. A huge amount of value and potential can be released by being willing to handover responsibility to local people and allow them the time they need to engage and self-commission solutions. It changes the dynamics of a place. People have been on a phenomenal journey so far and you can see how those journeys are starting to transform people and place.

On patient capital and a ‘no-strings-attached’ approach. It’s been critical to show people that this programme is real and different. We’ve learnt that properly investing in a place is much more complicated than merely identifying somewhere and putting money in it. There’s a lot to think about, and the journey is different in each place. Sometimes it’s about building a shared sense of identity, in some places it’s about building the civic infrastructure necessary for the challenge and in other places it’s about building skills and capacity. Some of the 150 Big Local areas were pre-existing communities but others were previously divided by boundaries. It can be hard work to build a sense of identity and trust and develop the relationships needed to agree a way forward. In many places the social and civic infrastructure has been neglected with the institutions that underpinned local communities now struggling in the face of cuts. In areas where social capital is relatively low, the starting point is about building that. Big Local has arguably been under the radar for the last five years – it’s the biggest secret of place-based grant making – but the focus has been on allowing the areas to set up, make plans, make mistakes and grow and develop. Communities have developed at their own speed.

On entrepreneurial communities. Big Local is helping communities to develop skills and capacity as the state withdraws and owning approaches and solutions. In Woolwich I met an executive member of Greenwich Council who said he wished all communities could be like Barnfield, the Big Local partnership there. A recent survey of Greenwich estates showed a disproportionately large number of entrepreneurial people who believe that their own actions can change their community. A community centre there had been burnt down and despite more than 20 years of campaigning, locals had struggled to get someone to replace it. It sat there as a monument to the lack of external bodies capable of providing solutions. In the end the community said: ‘Why are we waiting for someone to sort it?’ They bought a Portakabin and put it in the car park and now they run events and youth groups from there. In Collyhurst in Manchester the Big Local partnership has bought a number of polytunnels where long term unemployed people and other volunteers are growing vegetables to supplement what they get from the food bank. These are community-level self-generated solutions which a local authority or funder would struggle to make happen. It needs risk-taking at the local level.

On the changing relationship with the state: We’ve recently begun a research project called Empowered Communities in the 2020s, to gather a range of views about how communities can become more vibrant and empowered. Sometimes we talk about empowerment as being about those with power transferring it to a community. As resources get squeezed and we see the limits on power held by the state nationally and locally, it’s perhaps also helpful to talk about how we manage what can amount to a de facto transfer of responsibility for finding and delivering solutions to local need. A lot of communities that have been left behind can struggle to get those holding resources to acknowledge their needs and prioritise. In their relationship with the state those weaknesses and unequal power dynamics are often reinforced. Through programmes like Big Local we can help transform communities into becoming negotiators of their own destiny. At a time when traditional sources of solutions are facing limits on their ability to deliver, in some Big Local areas we are seeing an emergent model of community self-commissioning. As the state withdraws further in the face of financial, economic and demographic pressures, we may be starting to get a sense of what future settlements could look like. And, alongside that, a clear view of the way in which long term, patient funds going to areas can start to address the reasons people get left behind. There is a need to work with both communities and government to understand the impact of the huge changes we are currently going through. There needs to be open and honest conversations to help those communities at the hard edge of change to develop solutions for themselves, together with support to help them on that journey.

On stepping up funding and sharing the learning: Across the country Big Local areas are moving from planning and partnering into delivery mode. We’ve spent £50-55m so far over 150 areas and will spend £130m over next five years. We also want to provide insight and learning to feed into the growing conversations about how we deliver funding into places and how we tackle disadvantage. There is a huge depth of learning so far and it’s very important to what we do next. Local Trust is doing work around research and evaluation and we also want to think about how Big Local can work with partnerships that already exist in their areas. There are lots of local connections that can generate value, building links between communities and sectors – whether business, urbanists, planners or sports and arts organisations. It’s about being creative and seeing where value can be added in both directions.

On the privilege of doing this job: At one point I was so close to the centre I ended up being the official responsible for drafting the annual Queen’s speech. But over the last 15 years, I’ve moved increasingly close to the frontline. Working with amazing people doing brilliant stuff in their communities is more interesting than anything else I’ve done. It’s a staggering privilege to be paid to meet great people and see the energy, enthusiasm and commitment that can be generated by trusting them to make decisions about how best to change and improve their own communities.

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