I recently attended the Big Local Spring Event in Birmingham. There, members of Big Local partnerships outlined some of the many solutions to local issues the programme has provided.

For those who don’t know, Big Local is an innovative, Big Lottery-funded community development programme led by the Local Trust. 150 local areas across England have each been allocated £1m to use for the benefit of local people, buildings and spaces.

Big Local is different. It contrasts with previous nationwide regeneration projects (the likes of City Challenge and New Deal for Communities). In Big Local, local people form partnerships in which they decide what issues their £1m will address, as well as the strategies and approaches used.

It seems trite to say that the members of each local partnership have a great, bubbling pride for their area (of course they do!). But I was struck by how much this was the case. I’m reminded of the crowd’s reaction to a question in the introductory speech. “Is anyone here from Birmingham?” the speaker had asked. From among a general atmosphere of assent, the man to my left – who had been excitedly showing me flyers detailing his partnerships’ work moments before – flung his arm in the air and shouted the name of his small estate in the west of Birmingham: “Yes! Welsh House Farm!”

Put enthusiasm aside, though, and the distinct nature of each Big Local partnership becomes apparent. Each has set its own priorities and strategies, which are shaped by a unique combination of local culture, individual personalities and even geographical terrain.

So far, several partnerships have established a ‘community chest’ – essentially a small grants fund – to tackle their particular local issues. The One Palfrey partnership, which represents the Palfrey area of about 8,000 residents in South Walsall, is among them. At the Spring Event, representatives of this partnership delivered a presentation about their community chest fund.  It was thought-provoking and instructional, and judging from the responses of other partnerships, the fund is generally considered an attractive way to spend Big Local money.

The community chest model has been very successful in Palfrey. It has supported the Big Local ethos, by giving residents and other organisations within the community more autonomy to determine and address their needs. Through a series of community consultations, Palfrey residents have established the four key outcomes the Big Local money will be used to attain: increased cleanliness and safety; improved community health; better access to employment and lifelong learning; and improvement in community services. The community chest, from which residents receive between £500 and £1,000, has proven an effective way of tackling these issues.

Ultimately, the small-grants model has increased the impact of Big Local money in Palfrey. With more local residents actively involved in the project, more innovative projects can be implemented in a shorter space of time. So far, the One Palfrey community chest has led to the foundation of several impressive local schemes. For example, it has been used to establish a school-based adult education scheme in which young people are encouraged to ‘mentor their mentors’ by teaching parents elements of the school curriculum. According to the partnership, the programme has already been successful in increasing the involvement of parents in the school community. Several parents have even enrolled on adult education courses.

I was impressed by how locals are able to stretch Big Local cash by leveraging support from others, securing new investments and building revenue streams. In Palfrey, the community chest model has been strikingly effective in facilitating this. For example, a network of volunteers and local organisations has converged around the Palfrey adult learning programme, and has been delivering it ever since. And One West Birmingham partnership has secured a £10,000 investment from several local cycle schemes such as Big Birmingham Bikes, who are providing free bicycles and bicycle maintenance to local young people.

Other partnerships have expressed concerns about small grants funds, however. A representative of a Derbyshire-based partnership, for example, feared community members might not manage money correctly and money could be wasted. She also thought that it could lead to a lack of financial transparency and anger the local community. Arfan Zaman, who spoke on behalf of One Palfrey, did recognise the risks associated with a small grants fund. However, he expressed a strong belief that the potential benefits far outweighed them.

According to Zaman, the community chest has multiplied trust in the Big Local programme in an area where people feel that promises made by regeneration agencies have consistently been broken. In fact, when asked what they’ve learnt throughout their time running the small grants fund, Zaman’s answer was clear: “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. We’d have made the grants application procedure much simpler”. In Palfrey, the ingenuity of the local community has proven to be a core asset in the development of the area. For the partnership, this means no one should be denied the opportunity to make their mark.

It will be interesting to see if further Big Local partnerships utilise small-grants funds to stretch their cash. For Palfrey, the fund aligns perfectly with the Big Local ethos. In the words of Zaman, “residents know the problems in their communities, and they know the solutions”.

What is undoubtable, however, is the pride those at the event had in their areas. As a fellow West Midlands native, I left with chest puffed up and my head held high.

Renaisi is a key strategic partner in the delivery of Big Local. Renaisi manages the so-called ‘area reps’ who are employed to advise (but not dictate) on the decisions of the Big Local areas.

John Hitchin Renaisi CEO