It’s vital that councils understand the particular value that local community organisations bring to a place. A strong and active civil society is an inherently good thing whether or not it is commissioned to deliver public services.
There are all sorts of positive ways in which local authorities can build strong relationships with the community sector – listening to campaigning groups, providing small grants, supporting community asset transfer, involving local people in planning and development decisions. What is crucial is to create an environment where local community organisations can flourish.
Over the past 10 or so years, “place-making” has become the mantra for many local councils. Originally it was a concept related to physical public spaces. Now it has widened to mean the creation of an environment (including an ideological environment) that capitalises on the assets and potential within a local community, and results in places that positively contribute to people’s health, happiness, and well-being. During the same time – and not necessarily correlated – there has been a reduction in the direct delivery of services by councils, and an increase in the outsourcing of service delivery to private and voluntary sector organisations.
The trials and tribulations of outsourcing
The trials and tribulations of this change have been well-documented. Some providers have over-extended themselves and collapsed. Other providers have lost the commitment to quality (for all sorts of reasons) and lost contracts. In some cases, the relationship between commissioner and provider is highly transactional and loses sight of the wood for the trees within an outputs-based contract management approach.
This can have an incredibly detrimental effect. Here is Conservative MP Richard Bacon speaking prophetically about outsourcing on BBC Radio 4 on the 20th Feb 2015:
“One of the problems that we’ve had in recent years is there have grown up enormous service provider companies such as G4S, Serco and various others who have become good at bidding for contracts which is a separate skill from implementing them and delivering the work and hiring the people you need to perform the contract should you win it.
“So I’m afraid that too often the government is seduced by the rhetoric of big companies with big balance sheets who can afford to take a loss, certainly for a year or two … and then things don’t always work out as smoothly as they should and the savings don’t always materialise.
“So, I don’t think it is the case that we should always be going for the big contractors on the assumption that that will save money. Very often the local knowledge that local suppliers offer is much more valuable and much more value for money in many cases”.
The value of local community organisations
But for all the problematic aspects of commissioning out services, there have also been some real successes. This has particularly been the case where services have been commissioned to organisations with an absolute passion and a focus on people and place. It is very difficult for one organisation to deliver a vast range of different types of activity; maintaining expertise and innovation across everything from swimming pools to crematoriums has its challenges. Sometimes, when one of those services is taken over by an organisation focussed very specifically on a neighbourhood and a range of services in which it has a specialism, quality goes up, costs go down and innovation begins to kick in.
This is particularly apparent when local community-based organisations take over buildings or activities. These organisations are constitutionally and emotionally committed to the local place, which means they are locally governed and understand the people who live and work in the area. In fact, they usually are the people who live and work in the area. They don’t parachute into a new place to hoover up a contract; and if they lose a contract they stay committed to the place. They don’t need to start from scratch to build networks and relationships – these already exist. They understand the grain of the community and reflect its demographics and its history. They tend not to over-extend themselves (and if they do, they tend to lose community understanding and focus) and they don’t take over contracts with the aim of maximising profits for the benefit of their owners or shareholders. Any profit is reinvested back into the activities they are running for the benefit of the local place. This is real social value, in addition to the oft-cited output approach to added value (such as number of local jobs; volunteer opportunities; apprenticeships, which any organisation can provide).
So it’s vital that councils understand and recognise the particular value that local community organisations and associational life bring to a place. A strong and active civil society is an inherently good thing whether or not it is commissioned to deliver public services. There are all sorts of positive ways in which local authorities can build strong relationships with the sector – from respecting and listening to lobbying and campaigning groups, to provision of small grants, to involving it in planning and development decisions. What is crucial is to create an environment where the community sector flourishes.
Creating an environment where the community sector can flourishes
In some places there has been a visible and active commitment – led from the political and executive top of the council – supported by policies, practice and resources. Such an approach has been taken in Calderdale, where communities have benefitted from asset transfers; ongoing grants programmes and other resource sharing; social value and community asset transfer policies; thoughtful commissioning and a willingness to try innovative practice (such as alliance contracting, where the commissioner is part of a shared ‘risk and reward’ contract).
Calderdale council has also been a willing and enthusiastic partner to several of Locality’s Keep It Local initiatives and as a place, we are often cited in publications looking for good news stories about collaboration between councils and communities. The council has a Community Anchor Policy to strengthen and strategically embed its partnership with local community organisations, describing the borough’s commitment to, and understanding of the benefits of, asset transfer.
Of course, it’s inevitable that sometimes the good intentions don’t work out well or relationships falter in the face of difficult resource decisions. Sometimes community organisations behave badly and sometimes the council makes a hash of a well-meaning initiative. Such is life, but broadly the council understands and supports the benefits of having a capable community sector, with enough capacity to grasp opportunities, including the delivery of local public services and activities.
We are on a shared learning journey in the borough, which is as important as the resource sharing journey. Together we are thinking about the shift to “prevention” and recognising the very human, humble ways that this can work – rather than grand, unsustainable finance-intensive schemes. We are thinking about where best this approach works – often within the community sector – and how we can gather different agencies and organisations around broad common themes stated within the council’s new strategy, Vision 2024.
For the most part, the community sector is at the table for big conversations and consultation around resources and planning. We are part of joint leadership schemes for the borough. We have a platform to speak about our activity and our plans. We point out problems and difficulties and we are asked to help to solve these. This is what a positive and collaborative relationship looks like.
Keeping it Local in practice
There have also been practical and tangible examples of Keep It Local in the borough. Several asset transfers – some successful, others less so. Buildings brought back into community use, now being used to support local businesses, social and community activities, health and wellbeing initiatives, employment support, training and recreational facilities. One example is our own business centres in Park ward to the west of Halifax town centre. These were transferred to us almost 20 years ago and have becoming thriving hubs providing space for enterprise, meetings, learning and conversations. What we have done in Halifax, others are doing with gusto in Hebden Bridge, Todmorden, Rastrick, Ripponden, Brighouse and Sowerby Bridge.
Five years ago we successfully bid for a large (c.£10m) contract to increase the number of children’s centres and nurseries that we ran across Calderdale. It was a competitive process, with all the usual challenges of taking over services previously delivered by the public sector (different organisational culture, TUPE, an increasing pension liability). What’s more, the social value elements of the scoring process were low. However, we put in a very strong bid and were successful. Since taking over the centres we have placed huge emphasis on quality and development, with the result that all the nurseries are now rated “Outstanding” by Ofsted, and we consistently meet the council’s expectations of quality and service delivery within the centres and across our Family Support team. Our staff are passionate about giving children the best start in life and are constantly talking to parents and children to come up with new ideas to improve what we do.
We are commissioned by the council, along with two other community organisations, to deliver Staying Well, which is the social prescribing approach for Calderdale. Again, this is achieving great results and we are collaboratively learning and developing the scheme, along with the CCG and the emerging Primary Care Networks.
Halifax Opportunities Trust (HOT) is also funded by the council’s adult learning service to deliver ESOL and other learning provision in the heart of the community where we are based. This is because the council recognises our ability to reach learners who feel comfortable in our centre and our ability to recruit excellent staff who provide great learning and personal development opportunities for local people.
There are many positive personal stories that emerge from HOTs activities, too many to describe here. But here is one that shows the power of connecting people into social networks and ensuring that our own “services” are integrated and provide the right provision at the right time for the people we work alongside.
“Mahmood” came to the UK in 2017. Unable to speak much English, he felt isolated and unhappy with his new life. “It was important for me to learn to speak English so that I could understand things when I went to my children’s school and to be able to help them at home.”
After meeting a family support worker, Bary, at one of Halifax Opportunities Trust’s Children Centres, Mahmood was referred to the ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) and IT classes at Hanson Lane Enterprise Centre. He discussed his aspirations with his key worker Surraya and enrolled on one of the ESOL courses.
The classes enabled Mahmood to meet lots of different people, share his experiences and learn from others also on the course. He also found out about the Staying Well programme and met with Staying Well workers, Faz and Gulbaz, who offered him a volunteering role in the weight management group run by Staying Well.
“The group allows me to learn about being healthy and to help others to be healthy, it also means I meet many new people. I joined the football team too, we play 5 a side football once a week – I really enjoy that. Sport helps me to clear my mind and have fun.”
When Mahmood needed help to move his children to better school, staff at Halifax Opportunities Trust helped him complete the necessary paperwork and his children now attend a popular local primary school. “Main thing for me is that my children get a good education and another bonus is that I have met even more friends at the school.”
Ultimately Mahmood would like to find work here in Halifax so he is enrolled on further ESOL courses at Calderdale College and plans to visit the Halifax Opportunities Trust Employment Team once his English has further improved.
Building collaborative relationships for the future
Over the past 20 years a strong asset-based belief system and commitment to ‘keeping it local’ has developed in Calderdale, driven by the community sector and the local council. To push this forwards, an “Inclusive Economy Strategy” has just been launched which is an ambitious plan to harness growth in Calderdale towards a shared, collaborative and collectively prosperous future. Core to the strategy is an understanding that local people and community-led organisations are vital to realising the vision of an economy that works for everyone.
This is exactly the type of groundwork that needs to be laid by councils, in their place-making role, to ensure that local community organisations are included and recognised as vital for resilient, fair and regenerative local economies.
And to bring it right back to my own organisation, Halifax Opportunities Trust, we have a mature and collaborative relationship with Calderdale council. We are trusted to get on and deliver excellent services with and for local people, and in turn we trust the council to be a supportive partner.
When community organisations and local authorities get the relationship right and decide to Keep it Local the results for civil society and citizens are positive, beneficial and in everyone’s best interests.
Keep it Local is brought to you in partnership with Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales which specialises in funding small, locally based charities tackling complex social problems.