Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

May 11, 2007

Changing neighbourhoods: The impact of ‘light touch’ support in 20 communities

The past ten years have seen a range of new policies to close the gap between the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods and the rest of society. This summary, written by the team evaluating the programme, highlights the key findings from Neighbourhood Programme

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Changing neighbourhoods: The impact of ‘light touch’ support in 20 communities

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

March, 2007


The past ten years have seen a range of new policies to close the gap between the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods and the rest of society – in England, Scotland and Wales. All these programmes have emphasised the need to engage citizens at neighbourhood level in achieving change. It was against this background that, in 2002, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) launched its Neighbourhood Programme to support community groups and organisations in 20 neighbourhoods across the three countries. This summary, written by the team evaluating the programme, highlights the key findings from the four-year programme.


The findings at a glance

The JRF Neighbourhood Programme provided the opportunity to test out a ‘light touch’ approach to supporting groups at neighbourhood level. It also provided an insight into the experience of 20 very different organisations working in a range of different national and local settings. As significant new policy initiatives are developed by the administrations in the three countries, this experience has important lessons for the future of effective and sustainable community engagement at neighbourhood level. The programme evaluation found that:

  • Sustainable neighbourhood-based organisations are vital to effective community engagement. If the intention to engage communities at neighbourhood level is to become reality, local authorities and the key strategic partnerships in England, Scotland and Wales need to have a community development strategy that maps existing resources and commits local and regional bodies to providing ‘light touch’ and more intensive support as circumstances require.

  • A low level of continuous ‘light touch‘ support can make a real difference to neighbourhood groups. The ‘light touch’ support provided through the JRF programme illustrates the value of giving neighbourhood organisations access to:

    • a facilitator: someone who is ‘on their side’ and to whom they can turn for ideas, support and when things go wrong;

    • credit: small amounts of unrestricted money can make a big difference, particularly to smaller community groups and those just starting out;

    • networking opportunities: there is a confidence and status that comes from finding out your experience is shared with others;

    • help with action planning: even the smallest of community groups benefited from support to review local needs and opportunities, map out their future and reflect on past achievements and difficulties;

    • a broker who can mediate with other organisations and agencies if necessary and unblock relationships with power-holders such as the local authority.

  • More intensive community development support is needed where there is a long history of disadvantage, where there is a fragmented community and where there is a major change at community level e.g. as a result of regeneration programmes. It will also be needed where there are pockets of disadvantage in more affluent areas, which are often hidden from view and where there has been little previous investment.

  • The pace and complexity of policy change is demanding for communities that are already stressed. A responsive and engaged public sector culture is one which:

    • builds a percentage for participation into all its neighbourhood strategies;

    • recognises that flexibility and realistic timescales are needed if local resources are to be used effectively;

    • rewards officers who are prepared to take risks;

    • ensures that neighbourhood structures make sense to the people living there;

    • provides opportunities for formal and informal learning between public agencies and local communities.

  • A wide range of agencies can make this agenda a reality:

    • a facilitator: someone who is ‘on their side’ and to whom they can turn for ideas, support and when things go wrong;

    • credit: small amounts of unrestricted money can make a big difference, particularly to smaller community groups and those just starting out;

    • networking opportunities: there is a confidence and status that comes from finding out your experience is shared with others;

    • help with action planning: even the smallest of community groups benefited from support to review local needs and opportunities, map out their future and reflect on past achievements and difficulties;

    • a broker who can mediate with other organisations and agencies if necessary and unblock relationships with power-holders such as the local authority.

The policy agenda

Over the past ten years, policy-makers across Britain have made a concerted attempt to close the gap between the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods and the rest of society. The National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal in England grew out of New Labour’s commitment to minimise social exclusion while social justice has been a hallmark of the programmes of the devolved Scottish and Welsh administrations. Common to all three administrations is a commitment to empowerment and partnership – engaging the people living in these neighbourhoods in the process of change.

As policy has evolved, this commitment has remained, although there have been changes in emphasis. First in Scotland and then in England, there has been a shift from specially targeted central government funding initiatives to an approach where the needs of these neighbourhoods are to be met within a more comprehensive framework for local government – in England, the Local Area Agreement; in Scotland, Community Planning. In Wales, where the approach has been less target-driven, with more of a developmental, capacity-building approach across a larger number of neighbourhoods, the central government special initiative remains, although here, too, a new policy of Local Service Agreements is being introduced.

The Neighbourhood Programme

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has a long history of influencing social policy through research and debate. Between 1992 and 2000, through its Action on Estates and Area Regeneration Programmes, it funded nearly 100 studies of neighbourhood renewal initiatives across the UK. Following these initiatives, it took the decision to move into practice development and test out how it could use its research to support neighbourhoods to benefit from the new opportunities in neighbourhood renewal and beyond. The result was the Neighbourhood Programme, which worked with 20 community-based organisations across England, Scotland and Wales to help them to achieve their aims at neighbourhood level. The groups were at very different stages of development, from very small, unfunded community groups to very large neighbourhood organisations with budgets running to millions. The idea was to offer support not through major funding but through a range of ‘light touch’ resources and to build a ‘learning network’ through which the organisations could share experience and support each other.

The programme not only provided an opportunity to test out new ways of supporting local community-based organisations. It also provided a unique opportunity to track the progress of 20 very different organisations, operating in very different contexts, over a period of four years – providing a ‘bird’s eye view’ of what happens in neighbourhoods.

Who was on the programme

Twenty neighbourhood-based organisations were chosen to provide a diverse sample across the three countries: four projects in each of Scotland, Wales and three English regions: Yorkshire and Humber, West Midlands and South West England. The organisations were at different stages of development and based in different types of neighbourhood – some were community led; others had paid workers. They ranged from informal groups of volunteers to well established organisations with 70+ employees. Some had experience of neighbourhood renewal initiatives; others were small pockets of deprivation in more affluent areas.

What happens in neighbourhoods: the challenges groups face

The participating organisations identified a number of common challenges at the outset of the programme. These were:

  • local knowledge and analysis;

  • engaging with the wider community;

  • organisational capacity and leadership;

  • divisions and fragmentation within the neighbourhood;

  • lack of influence with local power-holders;

  • difficulties in securing sustainable funding.

Local knowledge and analysis

Community planning and review encourages neighbourhood organisations to become more strategic and gives them more credibility when dealing with decision-makers. Yet relatively few organisations pay attention to planning unless it is a funding requirement. The programme introduced ‘action planning’ as a tool to help the participating organisations reflect on what they were really about, to understand the context in which they were working and to determine short (one year) and longer-term (three years) priorities. It was also a means by which JRF could assess the needs and progress of organisations.

At the start, some of the participants were resistant to action planning. However, smaller organisations in particular came to the view that using the action plan as a basis for annual review was an extremely valuable process. They reported that it “sets your sights on something” and that without it they “wouldn’t have had anything to judge progress“. Many now intend to keep their action planning process going after the end of the programme.

Engaging with the wider local community

Government’s commitment to community engagement is very welcome but it places high expectations on what are often fragile groups and organisations. If it is to work, these groups and organisations need to be able to call on a large enough pool of active residents. This increases the energies and resources available to an organisation; it ensures that the organisation is responding to local needs and aspirations; it gives the organisation legitimacy when it is dealing with outsiders; and it ensures that engagement is not dominated by one or two individuals, however well-intentioned. But involving people is not easy. Small organisations often lack the confidence to go out and engage more people – they may not know how to do it, or they may not see the need if they are essentially social groups. Spreading involvement is also important for larger, more successful community organisations, so that they do not lose touch with their roots as they become more professionalised. For many organisations, reaching out to young people was a particular priority – to bridge the generation gap and foster the active citizens of the future.

Some of these methods come with health warnings. Community buildings can be a millstone if they need too much maintenance and renovation. Community newspapers can be highly variable in quality and difficult to maintain – they need expertise and resources.

Organisational capacity

The examples below illustrate how people learn and gain confidence through being involved at neighbourhood level.

One young person spoke about the leadership skills he had developed: organising events, leading the youth group and representing young people as chair of the council’s Youth Forum. Now he is getting other young people involved in the group.

“As a young person I’ve become more mature. I’m seen as a bit of a role model for others now. They treat me like a local councillor sometimes.”

Another person described how he changed from being a fairly passive person, who found it difficult to strike up a conversation, to being much more assertive, with the confidence to speak in a plenary session at a JRF national networking event.

Nonetheless organisational and leadership development are a major challenge for neighbourhood organisations. But while organisational failures, lack of strategic capacity and failure to engage effectively in partnership are often blamed on a lack of leadership, few resources are invested in building this capacity. Supporting board and committee members to lead and supporting paid workers to manage were therefore major tasks for the facilitators. Growth was another challenge. Groups are often unprepared for the considerable responsibilities that go with employment and the change in dynamics that employing people creates locally. There are many guidelines to help them recruit, but few to help them to manage staff and performance. Some of the organisations on the programme also ran into financial difficulties and this emphasised the importance of effective auditing systems – where finances are concerned, trust is not always enough.

Working with diversity

Policy-makers often speak of the need to develop ‘social capital’ in communities, on the assumption that community ties are weak. But many communities do have these strong bonding ties already. What they lack is the ‘bridging’ social capital that builds ties across social groups/communities, both within a neighbourhood and between neighbourhoods.

Organisations were also building equal opportunities into their own practice e.g. Castle Vale Community Housing Association has appointed an equalities and diversity co-ordinator to help engage a range of groups in partnership work and service delivery.

Despite the policy commitment to community engagement, this programme echoes the findings from too many other initiatives before it: that many community organisations still feel marginalised in partnerships with statutory authorities and agencies. The need for more recognition from power-holders was top of the agenda for many organisations in the programme.

While there is genuine commitment in principle to community engagement in parts of the public sector, this is by no means universal. As the English Local Government White Paper, Strong and Prosperous Communities, states: “The best councils and councillors already work closely with citizens and communities – we want this to be the case everywhere.”

Some local authorities have made huge strides in terms of engaging communities, but in others, institutional and bureaucratic structures, cultures and practices create obstacles to partnership working and genuine community empowerment. And good relationships are often dependent on individual allies. In the end, implementation will only be as good as the weakest link. One programme participant remarked on “the continuing failure of public authorities to understand how communities operate (with all their complexity and confusion) and for them (local authorities) to adapt their ways of working to be more responsive, more generous and more trusting towards community members“.

There are lessons for central government here too. One organisation described its early days as a “huge power struggle” for control between the government funder, the accountable body and community interests. The pace of policy change also puts considerable pressure on relationships between community organisations and their funders or local power-holders. In some neighbourhoods, several government initiatives were competing for local attention and participation. Another problem for many programme participants was the lack of opportunity to have a strategic voice. Even where relationships with local councillors were good, groups often lacked influence over decisions at the city-wide level.

Keeping the organisation going

This programme has provided a unique opportunity to observe the life cycles of organisations. Groups ebb and flow, sometimes developing organically and sometimes struggling to keep going in the face of external pressures. Many individual participants felt that they and their organisations had gained immensely in confidence and capacity during the life of the programme. But four of the 20 organisations failed to survive in their original form until the end of the programme and one will come to an end shortly. This is not always a disaster – in this last case, the organisation is winding up because it has done its job and in another of the four neighbourhoods, the demise of one group opens the way for a new, broader organisation to be set up. But in two other cases, failure to survive because of internal and external pressures represents an enormous waste of energy, local knowledge, commitment and learning.

Not surprisingly, funding and fund-raising were identified by most projects as central concerns. A big theme within action plans has been the need to secure and develop community assets as a means of increasing sustainability.

What helps?

‘Light touch’ support can make a hefty contribution

The rationale for the Neighbourhood Programme was to test out an approach to supporting community empowerment and ‘better’ partnership working with public bodies that rested not on an intensive funding programme but on ‘light touch’ support and networking.

The programme was able to demonstrate the potential of a small pot of flexible funding, a little mentoring from a trusted ‘critical friend’ and the opportunity to meet with other neighbourhood organisations across the three countries – at a cost of roughly £7,500 per neighbourhood per year. In neighbourhoods that experienced poverty and fragmentation but were not targeted by a regeneration programme of some kind, this was often the only means of support. Indeed, the programme not only demonstrated the value of supporting organisations; it was also a lifeline for some isolated community workers, to help them better support residents in their neighbourhood. But there are some factors which are critical to making light touch support effective:

  • Firstly, it needs to fall within someone’s role. Some leadership is important in championing the light touch approach and ensuring that it is well co-ordinated and managed.

  • Secondly, it is not the answer to everything. In the programme there was a threshold below which more intensive support was needed and a ceiling above which the programme offered little added value. Light touch support needs therefore to be part of a more comprehensive community development strategy which underpins public sector commitments to active citizenship, community engagement and empowerment, and partnership between communities and public agencies.

Subject to this, as policy shifts from the targeting of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods to more universal approaches, this light touch method is likely to have an increasingly important contribution to make as part of a package of support to neighbourhood working.

Knowing where you want to go

All organisations benefit from the process of collectively reviewing where they have got to, recognising achievement and focusing on priorities for future development. The programme found that no group or organisation was too small to carry out action planning and that, with support, it was an opportunity to broaden involvement and ownership. In most cases, the action planning process was short, 2-3 hours maximum, and as participative and fun as possible. It was important that people saw it as relevant to them and felt able to contribute to it.

However, the term ‘action planning’ can put people off – it can sound too formal a process for a small community group. The initial resistance to action planning from some of the neighbourhood organisations suggests that it is more likely to work if it is:

  • introduced sensitively by someone the organisation already trusts, rather than simply being imposed;

  • tailored to the organisation, so that it can be realistic, relevant and fit for purpose;

  • owned by more than just one or two people; it is a valuable way of involving the whole committee and staff team;

  • fits with other demands on the organisation: larger organisations may be overwhelmed by a several funders all asking for different action plans, so the purpose of yet another needs to be clear.

Trusted allies

For most participants, it was access to facilitators that was the strength of the programme. The design of the programme ensured that relationships could be built over time – there was no ‘staff turnover’. The facilitators supported capacity building and organisational development, encouraged groups to grow and broaden their membership, helped to establish organisational systems, signposted organisations to further sources of information and useful contacts, and helped groups to plan more strategically. They variously operated as mentor, a critical friend, a mediator and an independent broker as required.

The five facilitators worked on a regional basis and were selected for their knowledge and expertise. They thus brought with them status and credibility with external actors in and beyond their region. Although contracted to the programme, the facilitators were not JRF employees and this arm’s length management approach gave them a highly valued degree of independence from the programme.

Each region had its own facilitator. There were one or two cases where the match did not work, but generally, the facilitators thought that the regional allocation was preferable to a ‘pooled’ approach, mixing and matching skills and approaches across the three countries, because it allowed for the development of a long-term relationship between facilitator and organisation. This low key support role is different from the consultancy roles the facilitators played elsewhere and illustrates that neighbourhoods often require, and benefit from, something different from either an occasional ‘trouble-shooting’ intervention or a more high-powered, change-agent approach:

“… the facilitator role is more active and closer to the action. It is a more measured approach.”

“This model is about building supportive tissue … limited but tenacious light touch support.”

The fact that they had a general rather than specialist brief was also important – they were not put in by a funder to solve a particular problem. Facilitators suggest that in order to make the process work as effectively as possible, 8-10 days a year would probably be the minimum time commitment.

Peer support – learning from other neighbourhoods

The development of a learning network for community organisations was always at the heart of the programme. For many of the programme participants, attending events and conferences was unfamiliar – they had rarely had either the opportunity to do this before or the support and encouragement to help them feel comfortable and confident enough to benefit. Indeed, these events provided a launchpad for further networking opportunities – groups have visited each other, successful networking events have been held at regional level and some of the neighbourhood groups have presented at, as well as participated in, other national conferences.

“We started off really nervous, but built confidence and made friends at the networking events and the convention too. Two years later we will go anywhere.”

JRF organised two national networking events a year over the life of the programme, two-day events which alternated between midweek and weekends. These were mostly devoted to interaction between programme participants but with occasional outside speakers who contributed expertise and additional information to stimulate thinking and follow up discussion between programme participants. The success of the events was in part due to the relationships that were built over a period of time – at each event participants formed closer links with other organisations, often based on common interests and activities. Despite some misgivings from participants at the outset and despite different policy contexts, it made little difference whether organisations were from Wales, Scotland or England. Indeed, the Welsh and South West regions joined forces for a series of very successful regional events. The challenges that groups faced were the same – how to get more people involved, how to get the group on a firmer footing with the council, how to access funding for buildings, how to engage young people, etc.

“A five-minute conversation while queuing for coffee can be very productive!”

In addition, the networking events provided an opportunity for the neighbourhood organisations, the facilitators and JRF to get on with particular pieces of work while they were together. They also gave neighbourhoods the opportunity to feedback to JRF their experience of the programme and how it was working, and to see how others were using the programme.

Despite the overall success of the networking opportunities, groups often found it difficult to justify taking time out away from their neighbourhood. Sustaining these links and relationships in the absence of resources for a network – or the personnel to organise, encourage and inspire organisations to participate – will pose a considerable challenge.

A friend at court

As the programme developed, the potential for the Foundation to act as an ‘honest broker’ when difficulties arose – either within neighbourhoods or between neighbourhood organisations and power-holders – became more and more apparent. ‘Brokerage’ developed as a significant element of the programme. It was used where:

  • a local authority gave very short notice for the withdrawal of substantial amounts of Neighbourhood Renewal Funding, without observing due process;

  • a local authority responded to a new national programme by setting up a completely new partnership, despite the existence of a well-functioning partnership in the neighbourhood already;

  • an organisation in the programme was one of three separate government-funded initiatives in the neighbourhood that were not working together effectively;

  • past difficulties appeared to be impeding effective collaboration between the local authority, developers, the community and other agencies in a local regeneration programme.

Sometimes brokerage involved senior JRF players in high-profile meetings between the stakeholders; sometimes the facilitator adopted a more ‘softly, softly’ approach. Either way, it was essential to prepare the ground and success depended both on the clarity of the next steps for all stakeholders and keeping the local organisation at the centre of negotiations.

Brokerage is not the answer to everything. Difficulties remain in some of the neighbourhoods where brokerage took place and it is difficult to define success. Mediation is seldom a ‘quick fix’ – it is a process that requires ongoing support and relationship building between the parties concerned. What is important is that projects can call on someone they trust to help unblock some of the obstacles they face.

If the neighbourhood agenda is to be effective, it needs to be part of the culture of local authorities and other public bodies. As part of the Neighbourhood Programme, three events were held with local authority chief executives, leaders and other senior staff under the banner of ‘Bringing “Neighbourhood” Centre Stage’. In Scotland and Wales, other public and community organisations also attended. These provided an opportunity for local authorities and others to explore the role for neighbourhoods in local governance and the links between neighbourhood regeneration and service delivery.

There are inevitable tensions between existing power structures and community organisations who want to maintain the right to challenge as well as find ways of working with decision-makers and service-providers for the benefit of the community. And it is important to emphasise that there were examples in the programme of people within public authorities championing change, recognising that power grows when it is shared – to the benefit of both the policy-makers and communities. Relationships undoubtedly improved in a number of neighbourhoods.

Working well together

The evidence from the programme suggests that community groups as well as power-holders need to be challenged if relationships are to change at neighbourhood level. It echoes experience elsewhere in finding that there are some people or groups stuck in a negative mindset (“seen it all, done it all and nothing works“) or acting as a block to wider engagement, while some organisations have such formal representative structures that nothing gets done. One organisation in the programme decided to abandon its moribund processes and to get a group of ‘dynamo’ people together from different groups to make things happen. The result is a new group of people reflecting different communities, who all have an interest in finding their common ground and tackling neighbourhood issues and with others.

Flexible programme development

Finding the balance between running a coherent programme and allowing for a flexible approach to meet the needs of all stakeholders is a challenge many policy-makers and programme delivery agencies will recognise. Many participants felt that the programme’s flexibility was a considerable strength. It allowed a variable degree of access to programme resources, depending on the needs of the participating organisations. For example, some organisations received more time from a facilitator than others, some received a bit more cash help than others, and in the early days there was some trading off between these two sets of resources – giving up some of one to get a bit of another.

The cash help, or credit, as it was known, could be used flexibly in response to the needs of the organisation; there were no strings attached and it wasn’t tied to a financial year. Equally, the facilitators could use their judgement to determine the balance between doing and enabling in each situation. In this way, the programme was able to recognise different starting points, and allow the flexibility for a group to change direction and to call on a different kind of help. Few funding programmes offer this latitude. The Foundation itself underestimated the time needed to ‘get the show on the road’ but was able to respond positively by extending the programme’s life while retaining the budget ceiling. This flexible response proved very productive.

What this means for policy and for practice

Policies have been promoting a new relationship between the public sector and those active in neighbourhoods for some time. But the ‘how’ of making this happen still seems to elude many public sector bodies. So what will make community engagement policy stick at the neighbourhood level?

The experience of the programme suggests that engaging communities fully in the services and decisions that affect their lives requires:

Sustainable community-based organisations