Lessons from the White City

I believe in the devolution of budgets and responsibility, from central government to town halls and from there down to community groups. This piece tells the story of how I got involved in the White City community and the lessons we have learned up to this point. Despite being seen by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) as one of the leading community groups, taking on public services, I feel we are at the start of the journey and I hope to post regular updates on the progress we make over the coming months and years.
I first got involved in the White City through a series of conversations I had with Dame Sally Powell back in 2009 where we discussed the possibility of taking advantage of legislation to set up a parish council, covering the White City area. In the end nothing concrete came from that (my fault) and it is disappointing to see how little enthusiasm there has been for establishing Parish Councils in urban areas. The current administration is looking to address this (Link – next phase for parish councils ) and I welcome these moves. However, at the time of writing, in London, only Queens Park has taken the plunge – with elections due in May 2014.

Lesson #1 you need a standard bearer.

In 2011, through work I was doing for LB Hammersmith and Fulham, I again started to get involved with the community and the efforts that Stephen Greenhalgh (then Council leader) was making to improve services for the community. Indirectly, through Stephen, I met with Harry Audley, the chair of the White City Residents’ Association, and also chair of the White City Neighbourhood Forum. Harry is an extraordinarily powerful advocate for the White City community and it is Harry’s leadership, in my view, that has been the major driving force for the development of the community.

Lesson #2 get hold of a physical asset and start to generate revenue.

I then started to get more involved with Harry and the efforts he and others were making to corral the community and seek out work that the community could do on behalf of public sector bodies. One of the things I wanted to understand was what had acted as the catalyst for building the social capital on the estate? I live between the White City estate and another estate in Hammersmith and Fulham (with similar demographic makeup) and the difference is extraordinary in terms of community involvement. Harry’s view was that one of the key catalyst events was that the community took over the running of the community centre. Previously the community centre had become primarily a drinking venue for a handful of residents and now it is a thriving hub of community activity run at a financial surplus by the community.

Lesson #3 sustainability comes from running services that replace not augment existing services

Through Stephen Greenhalgh’s involvement, and the work that Harry and his colleagues were doing, and the emerging appetite within Central Government to see communities take on more service delivery, the White City was a natural choice to be one of the 12 Neighbourhood Community Budget (NCB) Pilot Areas. This has been an interesting experience for the community and has been a major contributor to the creation of the White City Enterprise (of which I am Chair) and further strengthening of the community, since it started in the summer 2011. What is curious about the NCB pilot programme is that there is not enough evidence of communities actually being given budgets. Plenty of them have been involved in thinking about how money should be spent but there is limited evidence of communities actually having budgets fully devolved to them by local councils or other statutory bodies. For the most part, neighbourhood community budgets have been led (or very heavily influenced by) the relevant local councils. The danger here is that community budgets could end up being about communities benefitting from money for work that is additional to what is already being delivered, rather than being given the budget and control of existing services that they can then replace. I re-read recently a report on “participatory budgets” under the last administration. The whole programme could really be summed up as follows – “participatory budgets? Sure I’ll participate in spending someone else’s money.”

Lesson # 4 think carefully about how you engage with residents and ask the right questions.

The programme of work, we have devised in the White City, as part of the NCB programme , has mainly been developed by a team based within the council (with support from the community) and has for the most part covered projects that are additional to, rather than replacements of, current services. One of the causes of this may be the way that the community has been engaged with. I think in general the community has been asked “what would you like to see improved?” Now this is a very different question from “what public services, which are currently delivered in the estate, do you think, could be delivered better by local residents, if they were being paid for it?” And better still “are you aware that currently different public sector organisations collectively spend x hundred thousand a year providing this service, do you think we could get a group of residents to decide how to spend that more effectively and deliver it for less?”

Lesson # 5 have you identified revenue that you can deliver i.e. have a budget for your community.

So we became one of the NCB pilots and this was one of the catalysts for the creation of White City Enterprise. WCE has now been established and we are busy getting the long term business plan finalised and at the same time taking on the delivery of services. Immediately we are fortunate in having revenue. In our case we have three income streams and a number of others in the pipeline. The three income streams are: Firstly, we are taking on the running of the community centre – this will gives us meaningful turnover. Secondly, we will be administering the Big Local grant of £2m. Thirdly, we are going to be running a parenting network which is being jointly funded by DCLG and LBHF.

Lesson # 6 think about marketing – residents and council staff need to be certain who to turn to

Something we didn’t predict was the potential confusion over branding and marketing. The NCB work has involved a lot of very successful marketing and branding led by staff within LBHF’s communications team. There is a regular fanzine, active presence on Twitter and Facebook and a new website about to be launched, all under the newly created brand of “Team White City”. We now need to decide whether to push our own “White City Enterprise” brand, work with the “Team White City” brand or possibly even take over that brand, something that will require delicate negotiations with the council. There is a danger that we become like the People’s Front of Judea in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, competing with the Judean People’s Front, rather than doing anything for the people of Judea!

Lesson # 7 have a clear process for determining which services to target

The next step for us will be to work closely with local statutory bodies, in particular LBHF to identify those services that lend themselves to being delivered by the community. This is going to require us to take a more systemic approach to ranking those services, that the council and other agencies deliver, that are best placed for community delivery. To do this we need to understand, in more detail, the capabilities of the community, but more critically have a way of scoring council services so that we can quickly assess which to target. We need to do this in partnership with the council and I know that services with the following criteria will be attractive to us:

1. There is duplication across public sector bodies
2. There is a willing commissioner
3. They are not already contracted out on a long term basis
4. The skills required to deliver are present in the community
5. TUPE will not eliminate employment opportunities for local people

Lesson # 8 work in partnership – don’t threaten through the Community Right to Challenge.

When the Community Right to Challenge (CR2C) legislation first emerged we thought this was helpful for us in the White City. Our thinking now has changed slightly and in our view the CR2C is extremely helpful, in that it has substantially raised the debate about communities delivering public services. We have quickly realised though that, unless we work as a true partnership, with the council, we are never going to win the right to deliver services. In fact the moment we start exercising our right to challenge we should probably realise that is the time to step away.
We have a mountain ahead of us but I hope that over the coming months we will build our credibility and capability to such an extent that it will become a default position, within the council (and other local public bodies) that whenever they are considering service delivery strategies that they automatically ask… “Couldn’t the community deliver this?”

We are not there yet but the signs are good and it promises to be a fascinating journey, on which regular updates will follow.

Giles Piercy
Chair, White City Enterprise
October 2013

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