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April 9, 2008

Will Scottish Government go for neighbourhood management?

Across England there are around 800 examples of ‘double devolution’ – where local councils are engaging with communities in the delivery of services. But Micha Gold writes in this piece that it has been left up to individual councils to decide if and how they attempt neighbourhood management.

New Start Magazine

It’s sometimes hard to understand why, when you know that something works and the evidence shows it can really make a difference, it is not more universally retained and delivered in a form that maintains the features that make it work. For me, neighbourhood management (NM) is one of those things.
The neighbourhood management pathfinder (NMP) programme was announced in 2001 by the former ODPM. Pathfinders were funded through government offices and launched in 2002 primarily by local authorities in 35 deprived neighbourhoods.
New Labour’s policy action team four wanted to test the idea that neighbourhood management might be an effective tool to ‘enable deprived communities and local services to improve local outcomes, by improving and joining up local services, and making them more responsive to local needs’.
I was lucky enough to get a pathfinder job as a neighbourhood manager and was responsible for establishing the Changes in Common NM programme in the London borough of Greenwich. It seemed the perfect opportunity. After years of working in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, here was a programme that made sense. Bottom-up would meet top-down. The effective involvement of a community in expressing its priorities would be combined with service improving, problem solving and joining up at a neighbourhood level. It was the first proper experiment since the costly attempts at devolution by Tower Hamlets and Islington in the 1980s.
Could better intelligence, an agile team, a community development process, and emphasis on delivery (rather than delivering) make the difference? Could real change in outcomes be delivered in disadvantaged communities for less than 10% of the cost of previous regeneration programmes with a new focus on ‘bending the mainstream’?
Many of us running the round one pathfinders felt instinctively that this approach would make a difference. Not only would services be better joined up and more relevant and accessible to local communities, but communities themselves would be engaged in their delivery. Step change might really be possible. When we began there was continuous support from the ODPM with special events and training for the neighbourhood managers, and ongoing supervision of the programme by the government offices. Crucially, if your local authority was not ‘playing ball’ the mere mention of involving central government would get things back on track.

Getting results

So, six years on, what have we learned? We are awaiting the next review from the national evaluation team led by 5QW, but the 2006/07 review was impressive. Average awareness of the programmes by communities was 67%; satisfaction in street cleansing had improved by 8% in pathfinder areas over three years compared to a drop of 2% in control areas; satisfaction with police services was up; and contrary to popular belief, two- thirds of reported changes to mainstream services had gone beyond ‘crime and grime’ issues and were focusing on housing, health, education, children’s and youth services, NM was enabling better ‘joining up’, better
use of local knowledge, and improved access and take-up of services. NM was already showing its ability to contribute to the worklessness agenda by improving access to jobs and adding value to the mainstream providers in promoting enterprise and inward investment, The pathfinders were also demonstrating that they could promote greater citizen engagement, more voluntary activity and increased social capital.

The report concluded by saying ‘the 2006 local government white paper set out a series of ambitions for local government -more responsive services, empowered and cohesive communities and strong local leadership which is”, focused on improving whole areas rather than just individual services. From our review of the nature and benefits of the pathfinders we believe that neighbourhood management initiatives can make an important contribution to this vision’.

All this from a team that had been initially sceptical of the approach! So what has become of neighbourhood management in the age of ‘double devolution’, or ‘devolution to the doorstep’ as Hazel Blears likes to call it? With top-down targets reducing, a new national indicator set, local area agreements (LAAs), and the impending corporate area assessment (CAA) due from April 2009, will NM survive this changing landscape? The answer is not simple and in some ways is quite perplexing.

An expanding approach

On the one hand, the future looks bright. Every govemment paper and review from Lyons to Flanaghan advocates the approach. The National Neighbourhood Management Network, from a base of 35 projects, knew of 250 by 2006 and is now in touch with 360 partnerships (SQW undertook a recent piece of work for DCLG and is aware of 500).

As it prepares for its metamorphosis into an independent member-supported body at some future date, the network is quite satisfied with progress, Fiona Sutherland, who co-runs the network, explains: ‘Central government funding which is specifically ring-fenced for the purpose of supporting neighbourhood management met its demise some time ago, but we have not seen any corresponding decline in network membership. Many of our members are already supported by mainstream funding from local authorities, the police, housing organisations and other local agencies who have been convinced of the benefits of neighbourhood-level working.’

On the other hand, a plethora of approaches to local working are being attempted, but some are not quite as comprehensive and lack the evidence base that NM has. Many local authorities are nobly and ably working to implement their own versions of ward or sub-ward level working to address local priorities and better engage communities. Wolverhampton has expanded its original six pilot NM areas to cover the whole city with its local area and neighbourhood arrangements -11 areas have local NM teams and four have area coordination from the centre. Newcastle has developed a long- standing Ward committee approach to deliver a series of local process called ward coordination, and are now planning to implement city-wide ward plans. Lewisham, in addition to existing NM programmes in its most disadvantaged areas is in the process of rolling out local assemblies to all its wards, as is Westminster. I was personally involved in the roll out of NM in Barking and Dagenham where the seven most disadvantaged wards now have a ‘pathfinder light’ three-staff model with a small budget and neighbourhood partnership, while the rest of the borough gets a ‘lighter touch’ approach working closely with the safer neighbourhoods police teams in each ward.

Uncertain future

These are just a few of the many varied and excellent examples of how approaches to devolution and localism are developing. There are clearly risks with this roll out. The NM model that is nationally evidenced has seven essential elements to it (as defined by the national evaluation team in the Rough guide to neighbourhood management that was produced in 2006). Often, elements are missing when NM is scaled up, most notably adequate and real levels of community involvement, a neighbourhood manager with clout, a team, and a neighbourhood premises. There is no evidence to suggest that the many hybrid versions of NM being developed are going to be as successful as the pathfinder model has been.

With NM, the evidence is growing that this approach to disadvantaged neighbourhoods has been proven to improve services, deliver on many key local outcomes, and improve community
cohesion, civic engagement, and voluntary activity. Yet DCLG still suffers from the need to make ‘the next big announcement’. So we’ve recently had new pilots in participatory budgeting and neighbourhood charters, a replacement for the neighbourhood renewal fund focused on worklessness -the working neighbourhoods fund -and more and more papers such as last month’s consultation paper from the DCLG, Unlocking the talents of OUT communities.

We are about to get a new white paper on community empowerment that asks such questions as how can we tackle worklessness and promote enterprise in the most deprived areas, what steps are needed to revive involvement in local civic roles, and how can we best increase opportunities for communities to hold local public officials to account?

With the NMP programme and the work that has gone on across local authority areas up and down the country, I thought we were much further along in finding more holistic answers to these questions. As for using this and translating it into current policy, either the DCLG is failing to learn from the past or else it has simply got stuck in a never-ending quest for ‘the next big thing’.

It is also hard to understand why some local politicians understand and nurture local approaches, yet others seem to actively shun the national body of evidence and momentum towards localism. Perhaps they find devolution too threatening, or maybe it’s a matter of ideology (though every political party engages in local working somewhere in the country).

Interestingly, perhaps the single biggest problem of this relatively laissez-faire approach is the message that with central government no longer driving the agenda it will be down to councils and their local partners to decide whether or not to ‘do’ NM.

Previously, the simple fact of central government’s commitment to the pathfinder programme was a useful lever to people at grass roots level who could use it to force the hand of local government agencies. Now that’s all changed and communities do not have any kind of ‘call in’ to central government -certainly not through the community call for action. So if you live in a disadvantaged area within an authority that is developing strong local approaches you may well begin to see the seeds of improvement and better opportunities. But if you live in an authority area that is not developing in this way, or is actively blocking local initiatives that do, tough luck. Is this a new postcode lottery? As a devolutionist, I can’t help thinking the government moved away from its top-down approach just as it might have been able to achieve its objectives with some of the bottom-up answers it was developing (confusing, I know.) My hope is that the CAA will be able to ‘out’ the poorer performers and the democratic process will then deliver the change.

Take the case of my old programme, Changes in Common, in Greenwich. This NM partnership tackled one of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods of any of the pathfinders. Satisfaction levels were some of the lowest. Over the six years it has been in operation, it has massively increased the number of residents aware of the programme and involved in it, and who feel they are able to influence local services. It has achieved or over-achieved on the targets that were set out in 2001- from hugely reducing the percentage of council tenants seeking transfer, to reducing the gap in recorded crime. It has even managed to impact on the more elusive measures – the gap in rates of unemployment with the borough average has reduced; key stage two and GCSE results are markedly improved, and even teenage pregnancy has halved. Under the strong influence of local residents it developed a nationally acclaimed neighbourhood ‘one stop shop’ where residents could get joined-up support on most local issues and services -housing services, children’s services, a Jobcentre Plus, Citizens Advice Bureau money advice -with the NM team and neighbourhood police team located upstairs.

Despite its success, there is no borough-wide approach to NM in development nor support to sustain the new ways of working that have proven so effective. As the NM programme reaches its conclusion there is confusion in the community. It has won the support of local residents and traders in the effort to transform Woolwich Common -a job that was always destined to take longer than six years -and this support will now be much harder to regain in the future.

Changes in Common isn’t alone. Blacon NMP in Chester has delivered a hugely successful resident- led programme that has seen crime fall, fear of crime reduce, educational attainment increase, unplanned teenage pregnancy go down and overall significant increases in resident confidence in local services. A good example of its success was with the abandoned/arsoned car scheme Car Clear Plus which reduced arsoned cars from 80 plus per year in 2003 to just three last year. This scheme alone made net savings in excess of £308,000 last financial year.

The pathfinder will leave a strong legacy through an independent community trust which is now the biggest Blacon-based employer (40 people) with a turnover next year in excess of £1.7m of which the majority is earned income. Yet the approach is now at risk. The strength of their NM lies in its holistic, bottom-up approach that is facilitated by a core team. The core NM team have had redundancies hanging over them since December 2006 when the Government started devolving the NM budgets through the LAA, giving the local authority more power.

The new executive at Chester Council has embarked on a major programme of cuts across the whole council which has left the NMP budget exposed. As a result, NM posts that should have been secure to 2009 are now at risk.

With Cheshire County Council also under review, and despite Chester and Cheshire’s commitments in their sustainable community strategies and LAAs, the future of NM in Blacon is back in the hands of the two authorities that arguably brought about the failing services and neighbourhood in the first place. One Blacon resident recently commented that observing the councils on this issue was like watching two fleas on the back of a dog arguing over which one owns the dog!

I’ll give another Blacon resident the last word: ‘As a community we aren’t going away! We have had a taste of neighbourhood management. If you don’t support it now you will only have to reinvent it in the future. Top-down does not work.’