Keeping it Local – Locality’s Conference on the Value of the Local

Locality is a members-based charity that supports local community organisation in England so that they can enhance their capacity to work in partnership with local authorities and deliver innovative and accountable public services. Locality’s conference today, held not far from Waterloo station in London, launched the six principles for Keep it Local. The aim is to promote better involvement and collaboration between local social sector groups, such as charities and not-for-profit groups, with local authorities and public bodies.

Keeping it Local is about helping people to define how the provision of services in an era of falling budgets, can be more responsive and directly relevant to local needs. The event brought together leaders and advocates for community involvement in public services from across the political spectrum. Tony Armstrong, the Chief Executive of Locality, introduced the conference by saying that in the rush to reduce the money that is given by central government to local authority’s in recent years, there has been a hollowing-out of the support that local charities, social enterprises and not for profit groups get to co-deliver and develop those services.

Contracts for local public services, Tony suggested, have often gone to large commercial corporations or national charities, who have the administrative capability to bid for large service contracts, but smaller organisations and local community groups don’t have the same access and are often prevented from taking part in the commissioning process. Tony argued, however, that there has been a shift in thinking across the local government and the social sector that is beginning to recognise the needs of smaller scale and local social organisations should be looked after more favourably in the commissioning process.

We have seen some large service providers go to the wall in recent years, and the ‘scale-fail’ that we’ve seen, where big management organisations like Carillion go bust and leaving gaps in the provision of contracts and services which public authorities have to pick up.

The aim of Locality’s report and the publication of the Keep it Local principles is part of a rethinking of the need to build capacity and capability in the social sector at the local level. Savings cannot be achieved just through the measurement of bottom-line efficiency, but can be shown in the mix of different services that an authority might provide. Phil Granville, the Mayor of Hackney, talked about how services have been brought back into local authority control in recent years, that have enabled better integration with other services, and a stronger focus on the quality of the delivery of those services. Phil doesn’t think that this is the only model that should be applied, as links with social organisations are vital to a vibrant and accountable approach.

According to Jane Scullion from Calderdale Council, by commissioning services locally, the money that is spent developing the services is more likely to stay in the home neighbourhood, town or region, and adds to the social benefit of the wider community. In allocating contracts locally, there is a recognition that local people often have more knowledge about the needs and the requirements of the people involved in the services themselves, and that they should be thought of as assets, not simply as clients or customers.

Local people have greater accountability over the provision of services when they are running them themselves, and because they are more likely to be able to engage with the people who provide them directly there is a stronger sense of accountability. Services can be co-designed to fit better with the needs of local people by getting them involved as collaborators and co-planner, rather than simply expecting people to use the services as if they are passive recipients.

In the past, local authorities have been encouraged to seek solutions to the problems of declining budget by outsourcing and privatising them to the cheapest provider. With many of the changes made with the Social Value Act in 2012, service provision contracts can now be set up on the basis that they include a measure of the social value that comes with that contract. This means that we are trying to come to terms, as Heather Acton from Westminster Council suggested, with how public services are used and understood.

If the commissioning process is mapping social value and seeking to identify wider issues, such as health and well-being, then we need to think differently about how we identify what that value might be, and what form the services might come in that provide that social benefit. Jane Scullion told the conference that in Calderdale the expectation is that the people of the area should be aiming for a more abundant life, and the when the council commissions its services, then it has to be clear how they identify the way in which these services that are provided as a collaboration and partnership that demonstrates this wider social benefit, and thereby gain greater community support for them.

Later, in a conversation between Adam Lent of the New Local Government Network, Susan Hinchcliffe the leader of Bradford Council and Marvin Rees the Mayor of Bristol, the discussion focused on the need to challenge many of our own preconceptions and our sense of entitlement to demand services. Adam suggested that one of the fears that many have about social value commissioning is that it simply replaces one clique of technocratic insiders with another clique of self-serving insiders. And, when people are presented with the responsibility of running their own services, they may not be ready or willing to take on this responsibility.

Susan made the point that we can’t assume that people can’t do the things that are being asked of them in the first place, because often they can if they are given the right kind of facilitative support. Marvin suggested that the danger of communities becoming risk averse is ever present, and that a greater level of support for failure needs to be built into the process. If we are not pushing the boundaries and failing occasionally, then we are not being sufficiently adventurous.

The reason that I attended the event is that I’ve recognised that many of the issues that are identified in Locality’s analysis are also relevant to our media system. We have a very centralised model of media in the UK, with little local independent service delivery and accountability. I asked Adam, Susan and Marvin if this was a concern, and if they felt that our media might benefit from applying the same principles that inform Keeping it Local?

Marvin spoke favourably about his experience of community media and the work that the community radio stations in Bristol do. Both BCfm and Ujima help people to form communities themselves by getting together to make content, as well as to gain experience training and skills about the process and responsibility of running a radio station, and then to share and tell stories about life in the local communities themselves.

What community media does differently from both the mainstream media and social media, is that there is a recognition of the need for accountability to local communities and co-producers in the process. However, and just like the challenges that are represented in Locality’s report, the urgent need to develop the capacity of the social sector to engage with these issues, and to introduce a more deliberative and socially accountable approach into the development of our public services, is something that we need to be pushing for more broadly as part of a social movement that can reinvigorate a sense of local belonging and responsibility. Who is better placed to help spread this message than community media producers, DJs, reporters, artists, activists and advocates, acting in a broad movement that gets people talking and listening to one another about the need, as Jane Scullion put it, to ‘dig where we stand!’

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