At the half-way point in the Big Local programme, Michael Toyer reflects on what we’ve learnt about community-led change from managing the Big Local reps.

Big Local was created in 2011 and designed from the outset to be radically different from other funding programmes. It has a vision of “empowered, resilient, dynamic, asset-rich communities making their own decisions on what is best for their area”.

Renaisi was part of the consortium that set up Big Local in 2011 and we managed the local reps up until March 2019. Our role in the programme is very different now; we provide direct support to some of the local communities to help them think about how they can measure change at a local level. With the programme passing its half-way point and our change in role, we have reflected on what we’ve learnt in the last eight years.

What’s special about Big Local?

Big Local is resident led, managed through local partnerships with a resident majority. Renaisi and other partners provide flexible and responsive support to ensure communities get the help they need to achieve their goals and ambitions.

The role of the expert rep in Big Local

After contributing to the design of the programme, we moved to recruiting and then supporting the Big Local ‘reps’.  Reps provide light touch support for areas, they are the face of Local Trust and the ‘custodian of Big Local values’ in areas. They helped get the programme started by bringing residents together at local engagement events, and now act as a ‘critical friend’, helping to keep plans on track, and providing a link between the funder and local partnerships.

With our practical experience of neighbourhood regeneration and understanding of community engagement, we were able to support reps when they needed help:

 “Support from Local Trust and Renaisi has also been good especially when times were difficult several months ago.”

Big Local partnership member, quoted in Local Trust The Halfway Point.

What we learnt about community-led change

An early evaluation by NCVO found that national partners delivered in line with Big Local’s core values and the programme  is doing things differently, with light touch support at its heart, but it’s not easy.

“It can be joyful and exciting, it can be thought-provoking and challenging, but it is rarely if ever described as easy. That being the case the level of achievement, the numbers who have been involved right from the start, and the commitment and hours of effort put in by people in local areas to make Big Local happen is even more remarkable.”

Big Local partnership member, quoted in the Big Local Early Years evaluation.

The role of the expert rep is critical

By working with the community, going to the places where people are and understanding the terrain, reps were able to help communities get to the root causes of problems faster and then help them to shape and set up their own projects.

The reps support was highly valued by communities, especially their ability to act as the bridge between the local area and the funder. Some areas felt they needed more directive, or hands on support for short periods but the evaluation found:

“The flexibility the light-touch approach offers is recognised as a key enabling factor of resident-led progress; where they are not overly dependent on the programme’s support.”

Big Local partnership member, quoted in the Big Local Early Years evaluation.

Trust is empowering, process is helpful but thinking needs to be freed

Trusting and investing in people to be the leaders of change in their place has had some incredible results for individuals and communities. The Big Local model allowed people involved in projects to discover a passion for improving their community, to bring new ideas to the table and design more workable solutions for their area.

In many areas that ambition of resident empowerment leading to more radical ideas for change proved challenging. Reps found that resident partnerships defaulted to approaches they’d experienced under previous, more constrained activity. Local Trust and the reps put lots of effort into encouraging and supporting residents to try different approaches and reminding residents that they had a lot of freedom to experiment.

Over time we found it helped to introduce some processes to ensure local accountability and consistency, coupling the trust and freedom with good governance and appropriate levels of support for each area.

Conflict is inevitable

When people and organisations with a passion for their area come together then some form of conflict is inevitable. One of our main reflections is that at a societal level most of us are not very well equipped to deal with conflict in ways that promote understanding and acceptance – mostly we reflect our adversarial legal and political systems with a focus on “winning”.

Many reps’ have had to work hard at some time or other to manage conflict in an area and the programme has developed a range of ways of supporting reps in these situations. Good quality engagement and clear governance always help reduce the risk of conflict but large community-led programmes should accept and prepare everyone involved for an element of conflict.

What’s next?

Since handing the management of Big Local reps over to an expanded Local Trust team, Renaisi’s role has moved from one of programme management to directly supporting some local partnerships think about and do evaluation. This neatly brings together the two halves of our expertise; service delivery in communities and a research and learning consultancy. We’re privileged to have been a founding delivery partner on Big Local and the insight we’ve gained is of huge benefit to our other activity on place-based approaches.

The ‘Big Local Measuring Change’ project we’re now working on follows the same principles as Big Local in asking the areas to decide for themselves what is important for them to measure and how they’re going to measure it. Renaisi is currently supporting three of the Big Local areas – Grays, Withernsea and Bedfordshire to build their evidence base.

Michael Toyer, Director