Making the pledge

Newly-launched Locality has taken a key role in making the government’s localism and Big Society agendas work on the ground. But chief executive Steve Wyler tells Clare Goff he’s not frightened to bite the hand that feeds

‘The next 36 months will be the most challenging in your career.’

Those were the words left ringing in the ears of delegates at the annual Development Trusts Association (DTA) conference last September. Chair of the DTA, Michael Pyner, summed up the mood when he gave a passionate response to the clumsy way in which the government’s Big Society programme was rolling out, in particular its lack of acknowledgement of the work already being done in communities across the country.

Seven months on and the DTA is on a roll. Having merged with Bassac to form a new larger organisation, Locality, it appears to be jumping aboard the Big Society bandwagon. Last month it was named winner of one of the government’s flagship Big Society schemes – the Community Organisers programme – worth £15m, and received increased funding – almost £500,000 – as part of the government’s strategic partners programme.

Where, I ask chief executive of Locality, Steve Wyler, has all the anger gone? ‘There was enormous anger at the year-zero presumption,’ he says. ‘The idea that Big Society had to be put in place after the general election and the writing-off of all the things that were taking place as the “usual suspects”. We found that deeply insulting, narrow-minded and foolish.’

One of Locality’s five pledges announced at its launch event in early April is to ‘speak truth to power’. It is aligned with – and claims credit for – some of the thinking and ideas now being promoted at government level, community right to buy for example, but will not refrain from criticism, particularly at a time when government cuts are hitting the poorest hardest.

‘We’re not on the side of government. We can work with all governments and across the political spectrum there are people who get what we are trying to achieve: who recognise that the old command and control or privatisation models aren’t good enough.’

Locality likes to link criticism with action and its response to the slash and burn approach of cuts to voluntary and community sector organisations recently gained headway with central government. Locality proposed a Right to Reshape which would ensure any public body looking to make cuts abides by a three months’ moratorium to allow community groups and service users to explore alternatives to cutting the service.

Last week DCLG enshrined this principle as part of a new ‘social responsibility’ deal between government and the voluntary and community sector. It is an example of the pragmatic and action-based approach to social issues embodied by Locality’s 600 members, and which, with Bassac’s members now part of the family, dates back to the late 1800s.

Bassac stands for the British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres and its background reads as a history of social change in the UK. Both Clement Attlee and William Beveridge worked as young men in the east end settlements, and social advances the movement lays claim to include universal pensions, law centres and advice centres, universal schooling and sanitation. Originally focused around students and tutors from local universities living within ‘settlements’, it switched towards more community-driven solutions from the 1960s and 70s.

Development trusts sprang out of the settlement movement in the late 1980s and 90s, fired up by the idea of using assets and enterprise to create local social change. The two organisations have joined forces at a time when their paths have led them back to the same place, finding common ground in their entrepreneurial, action-based and community-led approach to social issues.

‘There’s a big sense that by trying to make things work better in areas of deprivation it is possible also to find robust, valid, workable solutions to poverty – that driving sense of social justice,’ he says.

Locality prides itself on the high quality work its member organisations oversee in neighbourhoods and separates itself from much of the community sector through its focus on generating income and reducing dependency on grants. It runs the Asset Transfer Unit and sees the transfer of assets to communities as a means of transferring power.

In this, and in its localist, community-driven approach to change, its principles chime well with those of the current government.

Locality may be flavour of the month but Steve Wyler, the organisation’s head since 2000, is keen to keep a distance from government and is far from resting on his laurels. The five pledges announced at Locality’s launch are aimed at expanding and building on its social change agenda.

Along with speaking truth to power it pledges to take on the ‘blockers and bureaucrats’ opposed to change, to forge a ‘big alliance’ to achieve community transformation, to build ‘community capability’ and to ‘mobilise a million’.

Among the blockers and bureaucrats it includes many local councils. Locality works closely with local authorities as part of its community assets programmes and finds a very mixed bag of attitudes towards change.

‘In any local authority you have people who are public-spirited, willing to do anything to make things happen and have the right attitude towards challenging risk, but that’s not universal. Some have large numbers of people without those qualities. The task is to help local authorities to really grow a culture that supports the former and reduces the latter. Part of it is about the rules government sets and the encouragement organisations give in terms of co-design. We have responsibility to make local government work better but it does need to change.’

He is scathing about local councils making sweeping cuts to frontline community organisations rather than reducing management, and calls for local councils to be brave enough to help push local power down to the community level.

‘The way forward is to find new ways forward, to look at what are councils are trying to achieve and find new ways to achieve them. Even though cuts are being made there’s still lot of resources to do things; the question is how it’s being used.’

As part of its ‘big alliance’ it is currently in talks with like-minded councils, housing associations and third sector organisations with the aim of building a network of people focused on exploring new ways in which social problems can be addressed and transforming local communities.

The Community Organisers programme will be a key part of that transformation. A major plank in the government’s Big Society and localist agendas, some in the community development sector have criticised the decision to award the contract to Locality. The National Coalition for Independent Action said Locality ‘looks about as revolutionary as a packet of digestives’, while Kevin Curley, chief executive of the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action, which also bid for the contract, warned against duplication.

Locality is working with charity Re:generate, which will train the community organisers, and has identified 11 locally-based organisations who will recruit 500 ‘high-level’ community organisers.

After a five-month period of intensive training the organisers will be charged with animating their communities, identifying potential actions and helping to create change, with the help of mid-level community organisers who will work on a voluntary basis. By basing the programme with local partners, Mr Wyler says its work will build on what is already taking place, and he is adamant the organisers maintain their independence and be given the freedom they need.

‘Part of the power of community organising is that it’s not up to me or government. It’s not about someone in an office deciding what they should be doing. It has to come out of the community, from people finding ways to do it for themselves. It’s not about normal power relationships.’ He adds that some community development work, particularly that which has been directly funded by local government or by large institutions, has sometimes been ‘damaging to the credibility of the idea of community development’.

He predicts local and national tensions when community organisers begin to challenge local power relationships but says local councillors should feel hopeful for the added value it will bring to their wards rather than feeling challenged or threatened.

As we move toward a more localist and community-driven future, Locality is leading the charge for change. Steve Wyler now heads up an organisation that can lay claim to some of the most significant social changes in British history. As he mobilises a new culture for transformation, he’s inspired by one of his heroes, Fenner Broadway, a First World War pacifist and campaigner.

‘He’d seen appalling things happen but his faith in the possibility of humans creating a better world was inspiring. The world changes by people like him, people in community organisations having the belief that things can change and that people who are sometimes seen as part of problem are actually part of the solution.’


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Help us break the news – share your information, opinion or analysis
Back to top