This summer, the Department of Communities and Local Government published ‘Inspiring Communities, Changing Behaviour’. With the backing of the slightly sinister sounding ‘Big Society Delivery and Vanguard Division’, this document serves two purposes: first, to explain the government-funded ‘Inspiring Communities’ project; second, to offer tips and guidance to those who want to launch similar outreach programmes.
However, what it represents in reality is the withdrawal of state support from community initiatives founded by the Labour government.
In 2009, the ‘Social Exclusion Task Force’ – an organ of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet Office – launched a pilot scheme to improve the aspirations and attainment of young people in some of the poorest areas in Britain. Extensive research into the long-term personal and social effects of having ‘low horizons’ and inadequate qualifications made a solution to this problem a national imperative. The report noted that “educational and career aspirations developed during adolescence can have lifelong significance, influencing future occupational outcomes.” Meanwhile, a ‘poverty of aspiration’ was linked to low attainment and below-average employment.
‘Inspiring Communities’ sought the help of community groups and neighbourhood partnerships in building activity programmes and learning projects that could make a real difference to young people’s perception of the world and themselves. 64 of the most deprived local authorities in Britain were targeted, and 15 were selected in the summer of 2009 to share a £10 million government fund. This money was put to use by local stakeholders to create innovative community programmes aimed at encouraging younger people to expand their horizons and developing their self-esteem.
In Barnsley, the local partnership used government sponsorship to expand ‘The Barnsley Academy’, an initiative that sought to inspire and motivate young people while encouraging parents to engage with their children’s future. Thetford’s partnership founded a ‘Meet-Up Cafe’ “for young people to meet and take part in a range of activities.”
Many of these schemes enjoyed great success. The ‘Meet-Up Cafe’ boasts a membership of 150 young people, who get involved in all manner of inter-generational volunteering. The Rawmarsh Neighbourhood Partnership established a panel of young ‘Community Ambassadors’ to devise a project that would both bring the community together and provide its younger members with the experience of organising and executing a medium-scale event. They settled on producing a music festival, which goes live later this year.
The effect of such programmes on young people cannot be underestimated. During the evaluation stage of the programme, 38% of questionnaire respondents “felt their campaign had made a big difference to young people’s attitudes and behaviour”, with 62% responding that it had made “some difference”. A number of case studies included in the report testify to the positive influence these campaigns have had on the aspirations and motivations of young people.
The success of the programme has been rebranded by the current government as the adventurous vanguard of the Big Society in action. ‘Inspiring Communities, Changing Behaviour’ contains plenty of practical tips and guidelines to help budding social entrepreneurs establish their own partnerships and launch their own schemes.
However, the language used near the end of the document betrays how the Coalition is seemingly offering opportunity on the one hand, while withdrawing it with the other. The report admits that “government funding ended in March 2011”, forcing the initiatives set up under the scheme to source income from “local partners” in the private sector.
Elsewhere, it is left unclear how certain activities are supposed to continue over the coming months. On one activity targeting NEETs in North East Lincolnshire, the report states “it is hoped the work will be sustained through a partnership with a local college.” The impression is that many of these projects have been thrown into limbo and forced to fight on their own for survival.
‘Inspiring Communities’ thus serves as an example of the paradoxes that lie at the heart of the Coalition’s ‘Big Society’ project. Individuals and partnerships who have established working programmes in their local area are held up as community champions. The government provides advice and ‘how to’ guides for those who seek to emulate them. However, it would appear that the government is wilfully ignorant of the fact that the programmes in Thetford, Barnsley and Rawmarsh were all financed by the state, and require more money to survive.
Yes, the government should do its bit to create a climate where individuals and partnerships are encouraged to do more in their local area for young people. But it still remains the case that the state can do the greatest good by providing funds to those who seek to improve their communities. All projects need an idea and money to become reality.
Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is asking people to find both for themselves.
Louie Woodall is a Young Fabian member and Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog.