A few years ago the Joseph Rowntree Foundation produced a report entitled Person or place-based policies to tackle disadvantage? Not knowing what works. The title was a fitting, if depressing, summary of more than two decades of research and practice.
The current government has decided that the answer to this conundrum is to stop looking for answers and leave it up to localities to decide what works and what doesn’t. While this produces an admirable degree of freedom it is hard to know how they will decide what works in the absence of any rigorous attempt to evaluate the evidence.
Meanwhile it is becoming frighteningly clear that some things really don’t work. The labour market and the welfare system are neither providing sufficient opportunities for people to get secure jobs, nor an adequate safety net for the poorest. The education system does not prepare young people for a world where some families have never had a job. Our communities are not geared up for an increasing number of vulnerable older people receiving less help from the state. And so on.
At the sharp end, it is often the landlord who sees the effects at street level and who may be best placed to make a difference. And the landlord – the housing association or council – may be in the best position to help mobilise the neighbourhood’s resources, identifying and supporting the people who are catalysts for community action.
The conundrum is how these local lynchpins can move from reactive, sticking plaster approaches to ones that make a long term difference. Can the neighbourhoods under their care move from being places of struggle or survival to places of strength and opportunity?
The idea of asset-based community development, which asserts that the most important assets of a place are the people who live there and the networks and bonds they create, is once again in vogue. But the evidence – of unemployment, ill health, and poor life chances – continues to speak of people who are not fulfilling their potential.
At the same time there are messages of hope. Trafford Housing Trust is taking steps to build the capacity of its tenants by giving them some control over local budgets. Members of the Placeshapers group of housing associations are promoting a model of landlords as investors in their communities. Rochdale Boroughwide Housing is pioneering a mutually owned, membership based approach in which tenants and residents are partners, not customers.
This week we began a new project with the think tank Res Publica looking at how we can build on such approaches. Can housing providers become local social catalysts, systematically supporting community networks and building skills and opportunities for their residents? Should they see themselves as local economic development agencies, not just managers and developers of housing?
We’re on the lookout for examples of proven approaches that show how social landlords can make a lasting difference to people’s quality of life and chances in life, as well as improving the physical fabric of places. In particular, are ways of working that give local people a real stake in their communities and reward them for their efforts?
We’re also looking for examples of new ideas that are being tried, and the thinking behind them – are there innovative ways of addressing issues that have defeated governments and funders for decades?
If you know of tried and tested approaches, or of promising experiments we should be aware of, please get in touch and we’ll feed them into our research.