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Has localism stalled?

At the start of summer, I was commissioned by the National Association of Neighbourhood Management to go on a quest.

My mission was to discover and describe the state of neighbourhood management in England in 2018 – a period that marked a decade of austerity and the 10th birthday of the Network.

To help with this task, we surveyed 36 top-tier authorities and conducted interviews with 10 senior managers and Network stakeholders.

We were told in advance what we would find.

After a decade of cuts to area-based funding programmes, all that remained would be a small and straggly band of survivors who are keeping the flame of neighbourhood management alive while clinging to the hope of a sunnier tomorrow.

This analysis fit perfectly with the idea that localism has stalled as a consequence of austerity.

According to this narrative, the local devolution of services has been stymied by the abolition of the special neighbourhood funds of old.

Without the ‘special money’ and additional assistance to grease the wheels, change is virtually impossible.

In authorities where neighbourhood management was seen merely as a scheme or special programme, that has been the case.

By contrast, in the places that saw neighbourhood management as a powerful way to solve problems big and small, the approach has flourished.

In these areas neighbourhood management has not just survived austerity, it has been used, in the words of one senior manager, ‘to manage austerity’.

Instead of a minimalist version of neighbourhood management, we found that partnerships are growing in scope and ambition. Instead of a narrow focus on crime and grime, we found neighbourhoods working to address mental health, skills, and adult social care. And instead of shrinking budgets, we found that over half of respondents working at neighbourhood level expected their budget to be maintained or increased over the next few years.

I explored why we were seeing this growth and ambition with my interviewees and identified three over-arching reasons.

  • More sophisticated decisions can be made about what to cut and what to maintain through neighbourhood structures, based on a grounded appreciation of how decisions would impact in specific places.
  • Local partners can see specific opportunities for delivering savings through more partnership, pooling and collaboration. With neighbourhood managers often acting as the brokers and intermediaries.
  • Difficult decisions could be made with local community groups. Instead of facing top-down cuts, local people could and play an active part shaping the local choices in response to austerity. Or at the very least, decisions taken by statutory partners could be communicated and explained.

Or, as another senior manager put it, ‘the alternative is to slash and burn’.

Barnsley offers a powerful example of the efficacy of neighbourhood-level working.

Under the leadership of Steve Houghton (no relation), the authority has invested in community engagement at four different scales: area-based commissioning; multi-partnership ward alliances; neighbourhood networks; and individual opportunities to volunteer.

The consistent focus is on fixing problems with people, looking for ideas outside of traditional service delivery models, and giving communities the power and money to take action for themselves on the issues that matter most.

This has created dozens of new networks and groups, hundreds of new volunteers, and thousands of hours invested by local people in tackling local problems.

Barnsley is but one example of an authority that has worked smartly by seeing neighbourhood management as a mechanism for fixing many problems, not an expendable programme.

As Chris Ley and Ben Lee, the Chair and Director of the Network, put it in the preface to the report: the growth of neighbourhood working is ‘growing precisely because it enables public agencies to build trust with communities and tackle urgent community needs at the very local level. It has grown because of, not in spite of, austerity and the increasing complexities of service delivery.’

Read the report here.

 

John P. Houghton
John P. Houghton is a freelance public policy consultant. Website: www.metropolitanlines.co.uk https://www.linkedin.com/in/johnphoughton/

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