A win-win agreement

Local authorities need residents on board now more than ever as they reshape local services. After a slow start, has the time for neighbourhood agreements finally arrived? Austin Macauley reports

‘Lots of people just don’t have a proper understanding of what their part is in working with the local services. It sets out nice and clearly each side’s part and what’s expected. It’s a two-way thing.’

Linda Wilson is talking about the neighbourhood agreement that’s just been signed off in her hometown of Blyth, Northumberland. Covering everything from fly tipping to streetlights, it describes what’s expected of residents and what they should expect of their council.

It’s all about taking responsibility, something that ought to please David Cameron. Writing in The Guardian earlier this month, the prime minister rounded off a defence of Big Society with: ‘It’s about giving you the initiative to take control of your life and work with those around you to improve things.’

Neighbourhood agreements could represent one way to bring that about.

They aren’t particularly new and a number of areas already have them, but their use is far from widespread and current circumstances could see this simple but effective device gradually fade away at a time when it’s most needed.

Neighbourhood agreements – originally called neighbourhood charters and also known as ‘community contracts’ – were first mooted in a joint paper from DCLG and the Home Office in 2005. It set out ‘the government’s ideas to enable people to help shape the local public services they receive, and to become more involved in the democratic life of their community’.

The local government white paper of 2006 encouraged councils to develop agreements and then the community empowerment action plan launched in 2007 set out a pilot programme to put them into practice. This was extended in 2008 via the Communities in Control white paper, the same year that the Young Foundation produced a How to Develop a Local Charter guide for DCLG.

This all came during life under the previous government and in a very different economic climate. But given neighbourhood agreements appear to chime with current government thinking, and the fact that they are already used by councils of all colours, their prospects ought to be healthy.

The problem is their proximity to neighbourhood management. According to Liz Richardson, research fellow at the Institute for Political and Economic Governance (Ipeg), based at Manchester University, most activity around the agreements is driven by areas with neighbourhood management, which itself is under threat due to uncertainty over future funding.

She carried out an evaluation for the DCLG last year and describes neighbourhood management areas as being ‘in that mode’ when it comes to neighbourhood agreements. Other areas weren’t ‘clicked on’ in the first place, she says, and are unlikely to change now: ‘It requires a brave authority to want to voluntarily open itself up to scrutiny.’

But could they still play a role? She believes so: ‘If you look at the six actions in the localism bill there’s a big emphasis on accountability and transparency. Isn’t that what neighbourhood agreements are trying to do – make service standards transparent?’

The area of Blyth where Linda Wilson lives is home to a neighbourhood management pathfinder, Improving Croft and Cowpen Quay (ICCQ). It has been the driving force behind getting an agreement between Northumberland Council and local residents signed, sealed and delivered – to every household in the form of a calendar.

Betty Weallans, neighburhood manager for ICCQ, regards it as the culmination of several years’ work and a clear indicator of progress in this former mining and shipbuilding town. ‘Five years ago there was very little community activity. Citizenship was not on the agenda at all. Local services were very aware that they needed to work with residents.’

For a neighbourhood agreement to work, that all had to change. Regular meetings were held, thrashing out local concerns and priorities and gradually helping residents to understand the workings of local government.

The process has been complemented by the setting up of a ‘street reps’ initiative. Local people go through a training programme to be a key point of contact for their neighbours and other residents to help them to resolve problems they are experiencing in their area. Street reps work with local service providers and councillors, providing feedback from their patch.

One recent recruit is Tom Forsyth: ‘I can get in contact with different partners in the council. A lot of problems have now been resolved.’ He cites the example of a footpath that had become a rat run for cars until the police installed a bollard after the issue was raised.

‘A combination of the residents meetings and the street reps project allow you to go to the council and get an answer to any problems,’ he says. ‘In the area I live in it’s getting better and better.’

The agreement itself simply means the ‘contract’ between council and residents is there for all to see. ‘I think it’s a huge step forward,’ says Linda Wilson. ‘The services are prepared to put this down in black and white. This is how they want to work with the residents.

‘It’s all about empowerment – people are realising they can do it for themselves.’

Like other neighbourhood management schemes, the future funding of ICCQ is uncertain. But for any agreement to succeed it requires active local people, and Betty Weallans believes therein lies the key.

‘Services are being cut, councils have less money. But what we are hoping is that residents will drive this. They now know their area and will be feeding back to the council. It’s an opportunity for a two-way conversation. I think that’s why the local authority is keen to work on this.’

The signs are positive: ICCQ is currently working with Northumberland Council to help it set up neighbourhood agreements elsewhere in the county.


To get an idea of where neighbourhood agreements could fit into a progressive, inclusive way of working in the future, another former mining community, Manton in Nottinghamshire, offers a few clues. The agreement is one part of a three-pronged approach that organisers hope will permanently change the way local services are delivered.

Firstly, there’s participatory budgeting – a way to enable residents to set local priorities. Secondly, co-production brings local people and practitioners together to design the best services possible. And finally, the neighbourhood agreement draws the result of all these activities together and provides accountability and transparency.

The beauty of the agreement is ‘it’s about what you actually get, it’s not aspirational’, according to Richard Edwards, neighbourhood manager at Manton Community Alliance. ‘It’s a perfect fit with the policy climate we are now in,’ he adds.

‘One of the problems is it hasn’t been promoted properly – what’s the added value that it’s going to bring? A lot of models, including Blyth’s, are trying to incorporate a number of different tools to get the best out of it.’

‘People here feel they are involved in helping to make decisions. Agencies are able to say “this is what we are doing collectively”. Local people can monitor them themselves. It seems to fit perfectly – people are going to be co-decision-makers.’

Anecdotal evidence like this just adds weight the case for agreements to be not only maintained but championed the length and breadth of the country. Read Ipeg’s evaluation of neighbourhood agreements, or community contracts as they’re referred to in its report, and you’ll find it’s hard to reason not to at least try them out. Indeed, it concludes they seem to be ‘intuitively attractive to a wide audience of public agencies, community organisations, active residents and people in the wider population, and elected members’.

While not without flaws – Ipeg found awareness of the agreements outside those most closely involved was ‘patchy at best’ – given the short time they’ve been around, overall it’s a glowing endorsement. Improved services and better channels for residents to provide feedback to councils were both singled out.

But perhaps of greater interest are the provisos Ipeg sets out as essential to making neighbourhood agreements work. Among them is the need to give agreements more ‘bite’ – for both residents and service providers – through rewards and stronger enforcement. However, the final proviso could well be key: the need for a package of support to deliver the agreement. Those with support in place were more successful than those that did not. Is that support likely to be forthcoming in the current climate?

The difficult circumstances local authorities and others find themselves in may well provide the ideal scenario for neighbourhood agreements. When better to involve residents in decisions on local services than at a time when cutbacks are inevitable but, in general, local people are onside as the coalition takes the brunt of the blame?

‘Efficiencies will have to be made,’ says Richard Edwards. ‘Maybe out of this we will get services that are no longer imposed on people – more efficient services as well as more effective.’


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