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Learning from the past – a look at 50 years of place-based working

As a renewed focus on place emerges, what are the common themes for successful place-based change? Eliza Buckley assesses fifty years of evidence.

The Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR) looked back at over 200 pieces of literature on place-based approaches over the past 50 years for Lankelly Chase, as they considered what role they could and should play as a national foundation in supporting localities to change the systems that perpetuate severe and multiple disadvantage.

Published last week, we believe the research findings will be of use to all those working in foundation or government roles who are thinking about approaches that are nationally driven but locally delivered.

Unsurprisingly, we found that place-based approaches are wide-ranging in their rationale, aims and delivery methods. However, there are a number of common themes that appear to be at the heart of successful place-based working. What follows is a summary of eight issues that need to be explored, reviewed and reflected upon at regular intervals as work progresses:

  1. The importance of clarity from the outset about the rationale behind place-based approaches; its purpose and what place based means. This includes examining, and being honest about the assumptions and values you bring as an organisation and as individuals. It also highlights the need for an approach that can be both holistic and focused in terms of having realistic expectations about what can be achieved.
  2. The role and contribution of key players. You need to consider what you can bring to a place-based approach as a funder and what level your legitimacy is for intervening at this level. What does your money bring and what else can you offer?
  3. Identifying an appropriate place to work. It should not be too large and needs to be meaningful to residents. It is also important to think about how the scale of the operation connects to wider area structures (e.g. city, local authority, regional, national), depending on what you are trying to achieve or change.
  4. Working in partnership. The nature of place-based approaches to systems change – with a focus on holistic solutions and joined-up working – puts a premium on relationships. Whether you choose to work directly in an area or through an intermediary, it will take time to know an area and build relationships. Developing effective partnerships is not easy and means paying attention to process and informal relationships, as well as outcomes and more formal structures.
  5. Community engagement. Community engagement is essential for sustainable change but it can be challenging, especially if you wish to engage meaningfully with the most marginalised people. It requires time, resources and willingness to work as equal partners.
  6. Changing cultures and addressing complex issues that have developed over decades takes time. This is a consistent message throughout the literature and needs to be built into timescales for development, delivery and exit of place based approaches. For those pursuing systematic and sustainable change a 10-year commitment is a realistic starting point. Attention also needs to be paid to the emotional challenges of change.
  7. Demonstrating impact is fraught with difficulties. Place-based working will always be a leap of faith to some degree but building in learning from the start can help. This should involve all stakeholders, especially community members in defining learning objectives and how learning can best be captured.
  8. Sustainability needs to be built in from the start. But there is very little in the literature about how to exit responsibly. This is a significant gap to which place based work could make a valuable contribution.

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