How can local people take action on things that matter to them?
by Tiffany Lam
How can local people build control and take action on things that matter to them? Our research shows that there are five main components of collective control: social connectedness; knowledge, understanding, and skills; money and resources; influences; and confidence. Questions around how to build local people’s collective control and capacity for action have been at the heart of our evaluation of the Local Conversations programme, funded by People’s Health Trust.
The Local Conversations programme supports local people in 13 neighbourhoods experiencing high levels of deprivation across England, Scotland and Wales. Areas were selected based on size (typically with a population of 4,000 – 5,000 people), level of deprivation (typically in the highest 30% of the Index of Multiple Deprivation), and presence of an embedded local organisation that could facilitate the programme in the locality. The programme aims to enable local people to come together and engage in dialogue, decision-making and action to improve health and wellbeing in their local area. The hope is that this will ultimately help reduce health inequalities. The New Economics Foundation have been evaluating the Local Conversations programme from 2016 – 2020 and here are some of our key findings.
Firstly, one of the programme’s unique strengths is its resident-led approach. Local Conversation projects have established resident-led Steering Groups, which are the primary means through which residents regularly get together to discuss ideas and make plans to take them forwards. Steering Groups have gotten stronger year-on-year, as residents have gained more confidence to share their ideas and work together to translate them into action. As one resident in Caia Park, Wrexham said, the Local Conversations is “one of the very few projects I’ve come across which is structured with the community first.” Another Caia Park resident agreed: “What’s making it work is the involvement of the community.” This enables residents to feel some degree of empowerment or control, which can lead to more involvement in decision-making.
Secondly, the Local Conversations’ emphasis on residents identifying and tackling local challenges together, like fly-tipping and inadequate mental health care, has gradually improved people’s views on their local area. Due to historic under-investment and challenges associated with deprivation and inequality, like crime and high unemployment, many residents in Local Conversations areas struggle with apathy, mistrust and disillusionment. But by working with each other and building partnerships with other local organisations and local authorities through the Local Conversation projects, residents have become more positive about and proud of their communities. Residents also feel the Local Conversations have helped improve the reputation of their areas. According to a resident in Merstham, “It has been nice to see how things have changed round here for the better.”
Finally, despite the challenges associated with the Covid-19 pandemic and accompanying restrictions, the community ties put in place and nurtured by the Local Conversations were a lifeline for residents. A staff member at Govanhill, Glasgow, said, “Our focus has always been ‘bringing people together’ whether at canteen, family trips, or one of the groups. Even during Covid it’s true: bringing people together online to chat, learn, play or help with practical support.” While many activities and events ground to a halt, Local Conversation projects remained busy, launching emergency relief efforts to support local people. This included delivering food and children’s activity packs to vulnerable families, translating public health messages into different languages, and helping residents to access furlough payments.
The Local Conversations programme has strengthened community cohesion and resilience in many places that have been hit particularly hard by Covid-19 and austerity. The strong social connections, trust and sense of community that projects have built are valuable but fragile. Importantly, the programme has shown that local people are best placed to find solutions to challenges they face, and their voices should be included in building back better from the pandemic.
The challenge ahead for the Trust is to build on the strong foundations Local Conversation projects have created. This may include working more closely with local authorities and public sector actors to embed co-production in service design and delivery, for instance, connecting their own community-driven priorities to the wider direction of their local neighbourhoods. It may also include increased funding to support local community organisations with a resident-led approach that helps local people come together and build collective control and community power.
Tiffany Lam was a consultant with NEF Consulting. She is an urban sociologist with experience in qualitative research and socio-spatial analysis.
This was originally posted on the New Economic Foundations blog on 10th February 2022.
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