24 May 2022

Research Digest: Enough of the ‘grands projets’ 

Richard Harries, Associate Director, Institute for Community Studies, summarises the latest research on community power. 

Hang around the ‘community development scene’ for more than a few years and you’ll probably develop a weary resignation about the endless cycling and recycling of well-meant policy interventions. I last saw this at the recent Local Trust levelling up conference in Manchester, delivered in partnership with the Institute for Community Studies and Sheffield Hallam University. No sooner had Andy Haldane set out the government’s bold new vision than long-time regeneration veteran Nick Sharman challenged him on just how different any of this was from the Community Development Programme of the 1970s - or, indeed, any of the other grands projets launched with great flourish over subsequent decades.

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This wasn’t a cheap party-political point. The churn of endless re-invention is just as likely to occur within administrations as between them, whether it is New Labour shifting from David Miliband’s ‘double devolution’ to Hazel Blear’s ‘devolution on your doorstep’, or the Conservatives skipping from David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ to Boris Johnson’s ‘Levelling Up’. The possibility of real change and genuine community participation in neighbourhood and civic renewal seems always to be tantalisingly just out of reach. 

The Institute for Community Studies exists to challenge the faulty logic of doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. We want to build an irresistible, undeniable, high-quality evidence base of what’s working in communities and what matters to local people. We want that evidence to become a source of power for communities supporting them to take back control of the things they care about, and to do so in an informed, inclusive and democratic way. Our online repository is a vital first step on that journey. We already host over 370 reports, case studies, datasets and other publications - and that number continues to grow every month. 

The latest addition is a set of six reports about community-led housing submitted the Community Land Trust Network. These include an analysis of the state of the sector, three evaluations of key grant programmes, an assessment of opportunities for future market development, and a review of the potential for greater sustainability and carbon reduction in new housing developments. In a country like ours, where the cost of land and housing put them out of the reach of so many, community land trusts offer a different model of democratic ownership and development for the benefit of local people. 

The repository also includes two recent reports from Local Trust. The first of these, which explores the importance of ‘relational working’, is actually the sixteenth in an excellent series commissioned to learn how communities responded to Covid-19. The authors, led by Angus McCabe at the Third Sector Research Centre, argue that approaches that pay attention to the importance of relationships can enhance both individual and community wellbeing. The second report is also part of a long-term series of research papers published by Local Trust. Originally written for internal use, it looks at the use of small grants in Big Local areas. A key takeaway is the potential for small grants funds to improve community engagement and support a more sustainable local voluntary and community sector. 

Of course, an evidence repository on its own will not change the world. To quote the Swedish author Sven Lindqvist (albeit wildly out of context): “It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”  That is why the Institute for Community Studies is exploring news ways of synthesising this evidence and re-presenting it to different audiences. 

Earlier this month, we hosted an online panel discussion about community asset ownership, which drew on three recent reports commissioned by Power to Change and attracted an audience of over 70 civil servants, local government regeneration experts, social researchers and community activists. We’ll publish a digest report on community asset ownership soon and continue to test new ways to make repository evidence more relevant and accessible. If you have suggestions about how we can do this, or if you have a publication to submit, drop me a line at richard.harries@icstudies.org.uk.