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January 25, 2012

Speak up for keeping it local

One of the biggest pressures facing the community sector comes from the Government’s unshakeable faith in the principle of economies of scale.  Deeply embedded in the public procurement process, presumably this is why so many social enterprises feel the need to scale up operations.  However, Steve Wyler of Locality argues that we need to be much more vocal in support of precisely the opposite – that there is real virtue in keeping things local and community-scale services can be of the highest quality.



In 1891 a young barrister named Frank Tillyard began offering free legal advice at the Mansfield House settlement in West Ham in East London. He became known as the Poor Man’s Lawyer, and within a few years similar services were running at Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel and in many other places.

Conditions were difficult. There was no funding for this work, and demand was so high that the lawyers were only able to spend ten minutes with each client.

Nevertheless, this was the beginning of the campaign for a nationwide legal and advice centres movement. As early as 1902 the annual gathering of the settlements movement called for a state funded legal aid scheme, and by 1939, when the first Citizens Advice Bureau was set up, there were 125 Poor Man’s Lawyer schemes across the country.

Settlements continued to play a prominent and pioneering role in this field, and in the 1970s the work of the Birmingham Settlement established the nationally accepted standards for Money Advice work.

I think we should be very proud of the growth of the advice movement, from its small beginnings in the East End, to becoming one of the great third sector success stories, achieving redress against injustice and poverty for hundreds of thousands of people each year.

So how tragic to see the systematic dismantling of this movement today! Legal Aid is no longer available for many cases. Advice and legal services were among the main victims of last year’s slash-and-burn local spending cuts. In Newham, the birthplace of this movement, the town hall bosses have declared that advice services foster dependency, and will no longer be funded.

And to cap it all, last week I heard that Birmingham Settlement lost its bid to retain its contract with the regional probation service for its famed and highly successful money advice service. It was undercut on price by a national charity, Nacro, which apparently has no track record locally in this specialist field.

Now, I’ve got nothing against competition, or change, or against Nacro for that matter. It’s not the large national charities which are the real problem. What I object to is the incompetence of procurement panels which have no local knowledge, nor interest for that matter, and which are seduced by the false ‘economy of scale’ argument. In their eagerness to drive down costs, they appear to ignore the most important point, that services of this nature have little value unless they are any good, and that to reject community-driven services with a first rate track record is most unlikely to be in the best interests of the community – or ultimately of the public purse.

My new year’s resolution for Locality is this: in 2012 we will need to redouble our efforts on several fronts. We will need to speak out more strongly about the value of high quality locally-determined and locally-delivered services. We will need to remind people why some things, like advice services, matter so much. And we will need to expose the wretchedness of so much mean-spirited short-sighted public procurement, which is failing our citizens and our communities so badly.

And my New Year’s message to Locality members is this: I think we should be very proud of what we can achieve individually and as a movement. There is work our members are undertaking today which will have as far-reaching benefits in a hundred years time as Frank Tillyard’s work at Mansfield House a hundred years ago. But all social gains require constant vigilance, otherwise they will be eroded and lost. So where you are achieving a pioneering breakthrough, where there are important services under threat, where there is rotten procurement practice, let me know, and let’s see if together, by collecting evidence and pressing for change, we can make this a happier new year for our communities across the country.