How to… link local people to new infrastructure projects

How can an area’s ‘micro’ assets – its people and neighbourhood groups – be connected to ‘macro’ developments taking place? A project in the west Midlands is connecting locals, including asylum seekers, to a new hospital development, as Conrad Parke explains.

What is Urban Innovative Actions?
Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) is a European Commission initiative giving urban areas funding to test new and unproven solutions to urban challenges. The initiative has a total budget of 372m for 2014-2020. The fund received over 350 applications and in September last year 17 were selected.

What was Birmingham and Sandwell’s overall winning idea?
Our winning idea is called USE-IT!, which stands for Unlocking Social and Economic Innovation Together! It is a partnership that includes the two local authorities, the hospital trust, two universities, the Canal & River Trust (the area has a significant and under-used canal network running through it), local economy specialists (including Localise West Midlands, the Initiative for Social Entrepreneurs and Co-operative Futures) plus neighbourhood organisations.

The idea is to strengthen the links between ‘micro assets’ in poor neighbourhoods (people, neighbourhood groups etc) and ‘macro assets’ (capital and infrastructure projects) in order to reduce displacement and maximise the economic and social benefits of urban development for marginalised residents.

The focus is a disadvantaged area that cuts across the two local authorities. Over the next ten years it will become home to the new £350m Midland Metropolitan Hospital plus five new housing developments. It is also rich in micro-assets such as neighbourhood groups, voluntary organisations, nascent social enterprises and a large community of recent arrivals – asylum seekers and refugees – with unmapped skills and qualifications.

What has happened so far through the work of the fund?

 USE-IT! is built around three programmes:

  1. Social enterprise and social production.
    The Initiative for Social Entrepreneurs is leading this work supporting residents to trade their way out of poverty and social exclusion through the creation of a community of social entrepreneurs. Ninety social entrepreneurs have been identified, and twenty are already being given direct business development support. A local network is also being created, inviting local people, businesses, public sector bodies, local groups and investors to connect with and support community-rooted entrepreneurs and social producers.
  2. Matching job skills in the community with demand
    This is largely focused on the health sector and is being led by Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust. So far 57 individuals with relevant overseas qualifications including doctors, GPs, nurses, midwives, paediatric surgeons, public health professionals and an internationally recognised eye surgeon from Syria have been identified in the local area. Many of these are refugees and asylum seekers. They are now being supported to become eligible for work in the health sector, through language qualifications and professional accreditation, and being matched with a mentor from the relevant profession.
  3. Community research training
    This element underpins the whole programme and is being led by the University of Birmingham. So far seven community researchers have been trained, with an overall target of 60. They are being trained to take on leadership roles to drive and influence change and unlock and link opportunities in new urban developments. They will identify challenges and innovations to problems that traditional public policies have failed and provide community-based intelligence that will feed into the whole programme. They will also have the opportunity to research personal areas of interest with the aim of identifying other issues that could be tackled through this approach.

What are the learnings from this project so far?

  • Providing links, in a structured way, between macro and micro assets can benefit all parties involved.
  • The costs of creating these links may well be covered by the cost savings they generate. Social return on investment will be calculated towards the end of the project but it is already estimated that the intervention is saving the NHS considerable money they would otherwise spend on agency workers or other more costly solutions.
  • A partnership empowered to be pro-active can unlock significant positive change even in a time of austerity.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of an inter-agency interpreting service – one that can allow different individuals and organisations, from different sectors, to talk to each other with openness, understanding and clarity.
  • Unbridled enthusiasm is an essential asset in these dark days.

What can other cities learn from an asset-based collaborative approach?

We may all aspire to seeing an anchor institution like a hospital deliver broader social value in addition to the quality service they already provide. But the reality is, even with senior management will and support, most public sector anchor institutions are not naturally equipped with the experience, connections or resource to make this happen in a significant way.

However, there are other organisations that are and would love the opportunity to work with an asset like a hospital to create that ‘bit in between’, the link that can help the hospital and these organisations talk to each other, identify common goals and unlock social and economic innovation together!


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