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Localising the challenge

The phrase Big Society is banned and you’ll find little kowtowing to the government’s agenda. But Knowsley is still taking a pragmatic approach to cutbacks, discovers Austin Macauley

As challenging areas go, few come tougher than Knowsley. Situated along the eastern fringe of Liverpool, over the last 20 years the borough has consistently featured among the UK’s most deprived areas on almost every indicator.

Under the last government it benefited from substantial investment via regeneration schemes, which enabled it to reinvest in its infrastructure including seven new learning centres and a £25m investment in leisure facilities – on top of the millions that had already been targeted at Knowsley through the European Objective 1 programme.

That tap has been well and truly turned off. Indeed, on the face of it, the situation has been reversed with not only the various sources of external funding drying up but also the council facing a major reduction in its budget. That means finding more than £30m in savings by 2015 on top of the £23.6m already achieved this year.

Knowsley Council has previously been able to use finance to enable the development of its infrastructure, for example Kings Business Park, above. But now its emphasis is on creating a spending plan that maximises outcomes and enables communities to solve their own problems.

‘It is not a savings plan but a spending plan. Our approach is founded on outcomes, whatever
we do or support others to do
needs to contribute to the achievement of our agreed outcomes. If this isn’t the case
then why are we doing such things?’
So how does a local authority facing the same tough social and economic challenges respond with its tightest ever budget and around 500 fewer staff? For David Coulson, executive director of neighbourhood services, it’s been a case of sitting down with colleagues and going back to basics – establishing where the borough needs to get to and then figuring out new ways of working to get there with limited resources.

‘This is a council that never shirks a challenge. We are bold and proactive in our thinking. It’s in our nature,’ he says. ‘The best thing for us to do is localise the situation and be at the forefront of it. Because of that we are taking quite a comprehensive yet pragmatic and responsible approach to transformation – not rushing in blind so that we develop new solutions that best meet our circumstances.’

Knowsley, a Labour controlled council that’s often perceived as being among the country’s most paternalistic authorities (wrongly, in Coulson’s opinion, who points out there is already a mix of service providers), is considering all options. ‘It’s a blank piece of paper,’ he explains. ‘We have less money but our approach is not to think just about how best to make savings but more so how best to spend the reduced money that we have more wisely and for the widest benefits.

‘Therefore, it is not a savings plan but a spending plan. Our approach is founded on outcomes, whatever we do or support others to do needs to contribute to the achievement of our agreed outcomes. If this isn’t the case then why are we doing such things?’

A variety of solutions are under consideration – ‘whatever fits best’ seems to be the mantra. But he’s under no illusions about the challenges ahead, something reflected in a presentation he and colleagues recently made to the council’s cabinet which gave a frank assessment of where the borough stands currently as well as a vision for the road ahead. The former included high levels of dependency, low aspiration, high levels of child poverty, health inequalities, an economy ‘propped up’ by the public sector and a business sector focused purely on business objectives.

The council is working with communities in Stockbridge Village where the catalyst group, a network of stakeholders from the estate, is helping to shape future activities and services in the regeneration area.

Could the current economic and political climate actually be an opportunity for a fundamental shift in the way the council goes about its business? It was performing well as an authority before the downturn kicked in and had set ambitious targets in its sustainable communities strategy for where the borough should be by 2023. But those plans were drawn up in very different circumstances.

‘We have had to change the journey to get there,’ says Coulson. ‘But the ambition in terms of outcomes is still the same. We know that we can’t carry on as we are so we must adapt accordingly.’

The shift in Knowsley will come in the manner in which services are shaped. Coulson admits ‘all areas are under the microscope’ in terms of how they are delivered in the future but also stresses there will be greater expectations of what will be achieved by the money invested in those services. He and his colleagues are among a growing band of people who regard procurement spend as ‘the new regeneration budget’.

‘Contracts need to be about multiple outcomes, not just providing a service but generating other benefits, for example by helping community groups to grow or bringing about environmental outcomes,’ explains Ian Bancroft, the council’s area relationship director (delivery and innovation).

‘We’re now thinking about how you do regeneration through your core business – procure in a way that deals with that.’

Like many deprived areas, much of the investment in Knowsley in the past two decades has focused on physical regeneration, the limitations of which are now widely accepted. By involving local people in public services to an even greater extent it is hoped many of the problems that remain will begin to be resolved.

Knowsley’s successes to date include using cognitive edge techniques to work with the community of Page Moss to better understand their story and then work with local people to enable them to solve their own problems. A community empowerment framework (see below) underpinned with social growth actions sets out the many ways this area of work will develop.

But if residents are to take on a genuine role, the council will have to gain a better understanding of the many and varied communities across the borough. ‘Whether we fully understand all our communities is an interesting question,’ admits Coulson. ‘We need to get to know our communities better in order to deliver services better. If we don’t get that level of understanding we won’t know where the council fits in with all this.’

He has no doubt the capacity is there. Knowsley may be among the most deprived areas of the country but statistics only tell half the story. ‘This is a tough, dynamic area. We have communities that deal with a lot of challenges in their lives.’

To facilitate this change, the relationship between officers and members is key. Given Knowsley is arguably the strongest of Labour strongholds – the party accounts for 59 of the 63 councillors – the Whitehall agenda poses some significant conflicts and challenges here. However, in typical Knowsley spirit the aim is to make the best of the situation.

‘We’re trying to be proactive and avoid negativity about the coalition agenda,’ says Coulson. But that shouldn’t be confused with Knowsley playing to that agenda. ‘We are being positive, ambitious and bold about reshaping the delivery market for the benefit of Knowsley not to satisfy the current political agenda.’

Much as parts of the vision set out in the community empowerment framework sound like Big Society, that particular phrase is not the chosen mantra. ‘Social growth’ is the preferred term here and helping residents to help themselves is at the heart of Knowsley’s ambitious change agenda.

Aiming for social growth
Knowsley’s community empowerment framework focuses on five themes and provides principles for working with communities:

1. Forging a new relationship
2. Understanding the community narrative
3. Local leadership
4. Shaping services
5. The community conversation

This is underpinned by practical work to grow the social sector (‘social growth’) to enable communities to solve their own problems and be more resilient. Examples include:

Growing social enterprises – the borough currently has 43 and most are grant based the council wants them to be more risk orientated and have greater capacity to win contracts. Five key sectors have been identified: employment and skills; reoffending; green economy; social care; play and youth. ‘We’re working with social enterprises and asking what do we need to help them grow?,’ says Ian Bancroft.
Creating a way to fund the development of social enterprise and community activity – this will include exploring ways to increase philanthropic giving and bringing in social finance. There will also be a mechanism to locally bank that money, for example a ‘Knowsley Foundation’ is being considered.
Volunteering – at the moment the local CVS has a database of 6,000 people. The council intends to enable the development a ‘one stop shop’ approach, matching volunteers to needs.

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