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The big sobriety

If we tap into the assets of communities we can make an impact in ways that regeneration schemes never could. But it requires investment, says Nick Massey

It was sad but probably inevitable that the People’s Supermarket in Camden ran into money troubles earlier this year. The shop was highlighted last year in a Channel 4 documentary as a perfect example of the Big Society, but ran into trouble recently when a bill for unpaid business rates popped through the letterbox.

The dilemma the People’s Supermarket faces is a common one and provides sobering food for thought for those giddy with the government’s vision of a Big Society. It’s one thing for people to volunteer their services and behave like model citizens but the facts are there’s very little anyone can do without funding. At a time when many ordinary people and families are struggling with the harsh day to day economic realities of living, many of the usual sources of funding have been pulled or stretched so thinly that thousands of grassroot community projects are simply closing down.

Forever Manchester is the Community Foundation for Greater Manchester. We have appointed the first community building team in the UK, and are actively using the asset-based community development (ABCD) approach in three boroughs of Greater Manchester. What is our thinking and why is this working?

Some 20 years of regeneration have changed the face of modern Manchester. It is a fantastic European city; we’ve got implausibly wealthy football clubs, MediaCityUK, the Imperial War Museum, Manchester international airport, the massive redevelopment of Manchester city centre and the academic excellence of our universities. There is no doubt that Greater Manchester is a dynamic, successful and exciting place to be and quite rightly it elicits a huge amount of pride and attracts an enormous amount of attention.

But in many of our local neighbourhoods little has changed. We can easily conjure up images that are overwhelmingly negative. Images of vacant and abandoned buildings, joblessness, crime, drugs, violence and welfare dependency.

In fact, despite years of regeneration, little has been done to reduce the images of needy, problematic and deficient neighbourhoods populated by needy, problematic and deficient people.

National and local governments and the third sector have made many attempts to develop an integrated partnership approach to tackling poverty, social exclusion and other related social problems. However, instead of putting citizens and communities more in control of their affairs, the social services model relegates people to a position of passive recipients of state-funded services, creating a cycle of dependency rather than empowerment. In short, we’ve run into a brick wall.

Traditional public sector and foundation-led funding have succeeded only in creating dependency among targeted communities. Providing resources on the basis of need simply underlines the perception that only outside experts can provide real help. Therefore, the relationships that count most for our local residents are no longer those inside the community, those neighbour-to-neighbour links of mutual support and problem solving. Instead, the most important relationships have become those that involve the expert, the local authority, the health provider, the funder.

This virtually ensures a cycle of deepening dependency, particularly with funders, as problems must always be worse than last year, or more intractable than the next neighbourhood, if funding is to be renewed.

It’s a ‘find it, fund it, fix it’ culture. It’s unsustainable and it’s time to change it… it doesn’t work.

Greater Manchester is full of thousands of passionate people who epitomise that Mancunian spirit, people with potential, who embrace change, people who have the guts to stand up and be counted, people who spot things that are going wrong in their street and want to do something about it, not wait for a government report or for the local council to discuss it or wait for the media to brand their neighbourhood, feral or squalid or uncontrollable.

In essence the Big Society is a good idea, bringing back values, re-establishing a feeling of community, but the hard fact is that nothing works without cash.

As an organisation we have thoroughly explored the idea of ABCD. We embrace the idea that communities have an abundance of skills, gifts and talents, but we also know from experience that very little comes without a price tag.

At a time when the government has stopped all funding, businesses are donating less and less, and households are donating as little as 0.4% of their income to charities (80% of which are not local to them), how can all this work?

Traditional community development is driven through formal meetings, is agency-led and engages with at best 20% of local people in their communities, usually people who work within established, well-organised and properly constituted groups. This leaves over 80% of people remaining on the outside who would never engage in this way. ABCD is about new ways of working that appeal to this wider audience.

Three months into community building in Lostock, Manchester we have engaged with 100 local residents whom we had never met before, all now talking about what they can do together. That is ten times more people than we engaged with in the local area partnership there in the last three years.

We are already seeing that local people are starting to think about what they can do for themselves. But still while they wouldn’t think twice about raising money for Children in Need or Comic Relief, it remains out of the norm for them to think about raising money for themselves, for their own simple yet exciting ideas.

ABCD is about conversations and talents, and we see our role in coordinating these, connecting neighbours and looking with them at future ways of funding their ideas, often from within. This is where our community building team are starting their work.

After this article was written news that local people managed to raise about £7,000 in four days to keep the bailiffs away from the People’s Supermarket arrived. Great news, but don’t let anybody tell you that the funding doesn’t matter.

  • For further information about ABCD, click here

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