25 Jan 2022

Research digest: ‘None of us is as smart as all of us’ 

Richard Harries, Associate Director, Institute for Community Studies, shares a new resource for those working in and with communities.

We at the Institute for Community Studies are an ambitious bunch. In the summer of 2021, we embarked on a project to collect in one place everything we know about what’s working in communities across the UK and beyond. Six months later, we’ve built a repository that hosts more than 300 publications produced by more than 30 universities, research organisations, trusts and foundations. It covers everything from a 2003 'portrait of the Polish community in London' to the latest evidence on levelling up and left-behind areas.

With so much material in one place, it is easy to miss the wood for the trees - and so every month I plan to write a short summary of the latest additions. I’ve pushed the boat out for this first overview, with details of the 11 publications added over the last quarter of 2021. Most are linked in some way to the pandemic, and all are worth reading on their own merits.

What’s new?

In The Community Business Market in 2021, Power to Change and CFE Research claim that community businesses are bouncing back from Covid-19 more financially confident and economically stronger than before. They’re more diverse, too; the authors note that community businesses are four times more likely to be led by people from minoritised ethnicities compared with the UK’s small and medium enterprises, and that 58% had employed at least one person who had never been in paid employment before.

This good news is reinforced by two further reports that look at the state of community shops and pubs. Both are part of a series of annual updates by the Plunkett Foundation that stretches back ten years. The authors report that there are now nearly 400 community shops across UK, with an impressive 92.5% survival rate, and that while there are only 133 community pubs, they have collectively raised over £2.5m from more than 2,600 community shareholders, with a 99% survival rate. An impressive 84% are ‘confident’ or ‘very confident’ about their future. 

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Our next report is the latest in a powerful series by Local Trust, the Third Sector Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University and others, seeking to understand how communities across England have responded to the pandemic. It explores the ‘long shadow’ that will be cast over the coming ‘Covid decade’ and asks how needs experienced at community level are identified and understood. How have community groups been responding, and what dilemmas and challenges have they encountered along the way?

Local Trust also published Levelling the land: Social investment and ‘left behind’ places, by independent researcher Dan Gregory, who asks whether social investment in its current forms can support the regeneration of ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods. The report deserves careful reading - but those familiar with Dan’s other work in this area will not be surprised that his conclusion is that “social investment is not getting to where it needs to”. He recommends that any future investment from central government, from the Lottery, or the next wave of unclaimed assets, must be long-term and patient, designed to create the right incentives at a very local, human scale, and locally led.

The next two repository reports are part of another new series of learning briefs, this time commissioned by Power to Change and intended to share insights from its £5.2m Homes in Community Hands programme. The reports by Sheffield Hallam University review the role of ‘enabler hubs’ in catalysing community-led housing schemes and explore their “uneven success” in influencing local authorities and providers. The authors conclude that “moving from good existing relationships with individuals to more strategic relationship management and advocacy strategies … is likely to be a key legacy of the Homes in Community Hands programme.”

Power to Change also published a very important report at the end of 2021, Empowering places? Measuring the impact of community businesses at neighbourhood level, written by researchers at Kantar. The report marks the culmination of five years’ work looking at a radical new way of measuring change. Its core methodology, ‘difference in difference’ modelling, is the same technique adopted by last year’s Nobel Economics Laureate, David Card, to show that increasing the minimum wage does not necessarily lead to fewer jobs. And while it has been used by others in the voluntary and community sector (notably the National Citizen Service), this is the first time it has been used to explore whether a whole place has improved because of community activity. Importantly, like some of the other publications mentioned above, the report is accompanied with a dataset that allow users to really dig into the findings. 

Other recent reports on the repository include three by The Young Foundation’s Institute for Community Studies: a trans-Atlantic collaboration examining levels of vaccine engagement in different parts of the US and UK; a digest of three research projects exploring volunteering in community business; and a Civic Strength Index for London, produced for the Greater London Authority and co-created with Londoners. 

What next for the repository?

The Institute for Community Studies is a new kind of institute with people and places at its heart. We want everything we do to be useful to other community researchers, to national and local policymakers, but most of all to communities themselves. Our vision is a single, national evidence base re-presented to different audiences in the most appropriate way for each.

The current beta version of the repository is just the beginning. New publications are being added all the time and, later in 2022, we will be incorporating an innovative data dashboard developed by Power to Change, with a treasure trove of over five years’ community business financial performance data. In the meantime, if you have a publication you want to submit, or if you have suggestions about how to make the repository more accessible, please drop me a line at richard.harries@icstudies.org.uk