Big Lottery Fund puts pound-power into the hands of deprived communities

A new £200m National Lottery programme takes a bold approach to regeneration, investing over ten years in communities which have been overlooked for funding in the past and, most radically, letting residents hold the £1m purse-strings

A community-led programme is helping to empower deprived areas by putting money directly into the hands of local people.

The Big Lottery Fund wanted to help some of the UK’s most deprived areas, those least able to seek lottery funding. They selected 150 areas to receive £1m each, partly on the basis of whether they had attracted lottery money in the past and appointed independent organisation Local Trust to help residents spend the funding and give them training and support..

Two years on from its launch, new cooperatives and enterprises have sprung up around the UK and resident decision-makers have gained confidence in public speaking, accounting and community consultation.

Different communities are trying diverse approaches to meet their needs. In Clubmoor, Liverpool, residents have turned a derelict pub into a cafe and community hub, set up a street market and a community newspaper. In rural north east Yorkshire, smallholders and residents have collaborated to bring fresh affordable fruit and vegetables back to the community. In Suffolk and Berkshire, residents have tackled the problem of loan sharks targeting school grounds by setting up saving accounts in primary schools. In Gravesend, residents have reclaimed old industrial land, while in Newham, residents have set up a workers’ cooperative to bring better paid work into the area as well as a street by street ‘rep’ system for better grassroots democracy.

And the Big Local project is still in its early stages, with the majority of the £1m for each area yet to be spent. Much of the time so far has been spent ensuring that the process is genuinely resident-led and consulting on local priorities.

For most people in these areas, this is the first time they have ever experienced this degree of control over so much money.

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“Taking things into our own hands is a huge opportunity, responsibility and very hard work,” says Joseph Richards of the People’s Empowerment Alliance of Custom House (PEACH) in Newham. “I know the local kids around here, and I want things to be better for them. It’s not so much about the money – it’s about allowing people to participate who wouldn’t normally have been involved and gain life skills they can use.”

Unlike other attempts at regeneration, the Big Local stipulates genuine resident participation; residents make up 75% of the decision-making boards (known as partnerships) and 94% of those with voting rights.

“When I tell people about the project and they hear that each area gets £1m, the response is, ‘But surely the residents don’t really control it’,” says Niamh Goggin of Small Change, one of the several supporting organisations. “And then I tell them, yes they do. I can facilitate, but it’s the residents who decide.”

To balance the risks involved in channelling large amounts of money to areas with little experience of handling it, the partnerships are guided through a seven step process, which involves training, mentoring and comprehensive local consultation to set agreed priorities for the area. This means that the process has been slow, but that residents are much better equipped to bid for funding in the future or even take on local authority and government contracts.

“It’s quite different to anything else that’s gone before in terms of regeneration. And it’s the first time the National Lottery’s given money to people who haven’t asked for it,” says Chris Church, one of several Big Local reps who mentor residents, check on progress and support where needed.

As well as handing out grants, partnerships have already started to invest some of the money in ways that will generate long term income, for example in north west Ipswich, where they have made a £20,000 corporate deposit to the local credit union. In return, it promises to engage 250 more savers and save £30,000 in interest costs. Many partnerships are also in early stage investment discussions about community development financial institutions (CDFIs) or community energy projects.

“We’re not the kind of parochial board that just looks at funding local play parks,” says Kevin Peacock of the Liverpool Clubmoor partnership. “We want to transform the community over the long term. Where local regeneration has previously focused on physical buildings, we want to focus on people, even if this has risks.”

As Richards puts it: “In the future, the idea is people will be working for themselves; basically it’s about empowering people.”