Guest blog: Learning from place-based funding

In the context of Local Charities Day, Matt Leach, Chief Executive of Local Trust, reflects on his first year at the Trust and what can be achieved by local community endeavour.

A year ago, I was offered the opportunity to join Local Trust, becoming part of Big Local – a Lottery funded initiative described by David Boyle as “probably the most important and ambitious community development experiment ever undertaken in the UK”.

Since then, I’ve spent much of my time on an exhilarating, exhausting and energising journey, travelling the country to spend time with some of the most remarkable leaders, activists, entrepreneurs and innovators I’ve ever met. 

Whether visiting the residents of an estate in Bristol taking control of local development for their own benefit; a group in Warrington creating an amazing programme of community enrichment; a community in the Wirral taking practical steps to tackle poverty and deprivation whilst taking assets back into ownership; or a group in Dover attempting to kickstart the regeneration of their local economy – the story of Big Local is dominated by astonishing people taking the initiative to create and catalyse amazing change in their communities. 

It isn’t always perfect, sometimes it is difficult, messy or complicated – communities can be like that. But at its best, Big Local is an amazing exploration of what local communities – the grassroots of civil society – can achieve, given trust, time, agency and resource. And a practical test of opportunities and limits associated with radical devolution of power and resources to a neighbourhood level. 

Big Local started with a big ambition. Between 2010-12 the Big Lottery Fund identified 150 areas that had “missed out” on lottery and other funding in the past. These were often areas with significant levels of social and economic deprivation, but lacking the civic infrastructure or social capital needed to organise or bid for support for the sorts of community action other areas might have benefited from.

Each of those areas was allocated £1m of Big Local funding to spend over 10-15 years in pretty much any way they chose, provided they could organise themselves locally to plan and manage that funding, and bring the community together to make decisions on where the money should be spent. Beyond that, rules, constraints and priorities were for local people to decide. That Big Local happened at all is a tribute to the ability of the Big Lottery Fund to take risks and mark out new paths – it represents probably the first big investment in what has become a growing wave of interest in place-based funding.  And a massive test of whether transferring resources and control to local people could add value beyond the increasingly recognised limits of conventional grant funding.

The radical approach underpinning Big Local means that many of those leading the programme at a local level aren’t drawn from the “usual suspects” who dominate debates on charity, social enterprise or the future of civil society. Indeed, many of the areas I’ve visited were notable for the absence of stable civic organisations or engaged funders prior to Big Local. As a consequence, the programme’s starting point has been one of identifying individuals and groups with energy and potential, and focusing on helping them to develop as local leaders and entrepreneurs, supporting them in bringing their community with them on a journey of change. 

This sort of investment isn’t always straightforward or easy – whether locally or at a programme level. Trusting people to make decisions also means giving them the time to build trust, argue about priorities, make mistakes, learn from them and try again. Many of our areas started out with small investments in neighbourhood activities to gain experience of making stuff happen before moving onto bigger and more ambitious targets. 

Some communities are only just getting to the point of starting out on their plans, or are still struggling to make the most of the challenges and opportunity provided to them. Sometimes it goes wrong, with areas having to re-group and re-launch. Or partnerships failing to effectively engage with their communities and having to rethink how they work. One of the important benefits of a patient, fifteen year programme is that it can stay with people and communities as they overcome adversity, rebuild confidence and start out afresh. But, a third of the way into the programme, across the country Big Local is both starting to deliver real change on the ground in many of its communities and, as importantly, to provide important learning about the extent to which long term, unconditional place-based funding can be used to transform communities and deliver change. 

The last twelve months have been an incredible personal learning journey. It is easy as a London-based policy maker or funder to see grant programmes or regeneration initiatives as aggregated sets of application forms and annualised spend figures, and change as a set of dry impact assessments or slightly spurious consultant-led theories of change. Even more engaged and enlightened trusts and foundations still struggle to reconcile the challenges inherent in the power imbalances hard-wired into most grant funding programmes. Big Local breaks all those rules, handing over decision making to local people; prioritising long term engagement over short term results; and trusting in the imagination, energy and commitment of individuals not policy makers to deliver lasting results.   

Matt Leach
Chief Executive
Local Trust

We support UK foundations and grant-making charities