top of page

Confident Communities

Steve Clare, Development Trust Association


We have heard today a number of really interesting presentations from a series of experts in their respective fields and I think it is worth emphasising that ultimately any debate about the future of a particular community – in this case Archway – must focus on the most important thing about that community – the people who live and work there.  That is what a community is all about and the ultimate objective, however you seek to achieve it, must be a confident community, a healthy community, an enterprising community, a resilient community, a community that knows what it wants and where it is going.


I have been looking at a few examples from around the country of what I think are confident communities, and I would like to draw out some of the lessons I think we can learn from them.  Interestingly, at a time when multi-national capitalism is spreading across the globe, at a time where there is a McDonald’s on every street corner, I think that people don’t want to live in a place which is exactly like everywhere else.  People want their communities to have a distinctive character and they want to be proud of where they live.  I also think that this creates opportunities for a new form of local activism, which can be a powerful factor in motivating communities around a shared agenda.


As far as the concept of “community” is concerned, politically there is currently a lot of the attention on the issue of ‘place shaping’.  You can see that with government policy around neighbourhood management, around the concept of community anchors (local multi-purpose organisations that in policy terms are going to be the “next big thing” in the next year or so), and around some of the debates on citizenship and community empowerment. 


This focus on community and on place is particularly important for the Development Trusts Association (DTA) and our membership.  We are a national organisation with sister organisations in Wales and Scotland, and between us we have over 450 member organisations.  Development trusts vary enormously with respect to the scope and scale of their activities.  Responding to local needs, our members make things happen through a wide range of initiatives that include business start ups, managed workspace, recycling, environmental improvements, management of public space, micro credit, advice and debt counselling, welfare advice, energy efficiency advice, family support, child care services, community grants schemes, affordable housing, volunteering, job training, supplementary education, youth work, community safety, transport schemes, festivals and arts activities, sports and leisure, community cafes and restaurants, electricity generation, garden centres, food markets, healthy living schemes…. and much, much more.  Reflecting the title of a DTA publication, many of our member trusts are simply fabulous beasts.


Development trusts take a variety of legal forms.  However, all development trusts are based on four common principles.  They are about:

  • being in the economic, environmental and social regeneration of a defined area: we recognise that you cannot address one without impacting on the others.A holistic approach is needed.


  • being aiming for self-sufficiency, and not-for-private-profit:our members are committed to enterprise – generating surpluses through assets or trading activity and reinvesting those surpluses to meet social needs identified by local people.


  • being owned and managed: We believe that you cannot deliver sustainable change for communities, but you can create the conditions for communities to develop their own capacity.If local people have a stake in their own community, they are more likely to contribute and more likely to take responsibility for what is happening in their communities.


  • being actively and alliances between the community, voluntary, private and public sectors.Everybody has a role in play in developing healthy, confident communities – but as equal partners, and with mutual trust and respect.


Ultimately, it is about people taking responsibility for the future of their own communities;  people no longer blaming the council or the government,  people saying we can do something about addressing the challenges that our communities face instead.  We will decide what is important and what we want to do about our place and our area.  It is about taking control – and whilst we are talking about community-led activity, this is not necessarily small scale activity.  We have some members with £30 million of assets and turnover of £6-8 million per year – highly professional organisations, owned and managed by local communities. That is an indication of what can be done through community ownership and leadership.  And that is something important to emphasise, because quite often community organisations are seen as small and, just because they are local, not that important.  So I think ambition is very important, because you can turn round communities and make a real difference to people’s lives.


I want to look at a few examples.  One I’m sure you’ll be very familiar with – Coin Street Community Builders on London’s South Bank.  That began with the handover of about 13 acres of land from the old Greater London Council in 1983.  Coin Street now owns some 230 houses, a retail development including the Oxo Tower, a couple of restaurants, work spaces and a stunning conference centre. Currently they are planning another major development that includes an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a 40-storey block of residential flats – and everything is community-owned and managed. That is the sort of ambition that they have.  That is what they decided they wanted as part of the development of the South Bank for their community.  


Amble Development Trust in Northumberland is based in a small former mining and fishing community that was really on its uppers a few years back in the early ‘90s. The development trust bought a redundant pub for £1 and used that as basis for community action.  That asset now generates income through rents from local businesses and voluntary groups.  Initially the focus was on regenerating the local High Street and the town centre.  However, they then took over the one and only local bakery when the owner retired – saving seven jobs and creating what is now a thriving and expanding business.  Now the trust is re-developing an old Co-op shop as a retail and high-end restaurant business, and has just opened a stunning modern high tech HQ.  Again, this is a community organisation that is owned and managed by local people, creating jobs and training opportunities, and generating profits to be reinvested back into meeting local community needs.


Another stunning example is the Goodwin Development Trust on the Thornhill Estate in Hull – a large social housing estate with high levels of deprivation.  They have built an award-winning community facility that houses local authority and health service facilities as well as a 260-seat conference centre.  Established in 1984, the trust now employs over 330 staff across 18 sites in Hull.  Outside the public sector, they are the biggest employer in the area and have a turnover of about £8 million per year.  They were the first organisation in the country to have a community warden scheme, and currently employ 55 wardens.  They are taking over the ownership and management of some 1,550 homes on the estate.  That is a community that has confidence in its future.  They are even developing international links.  They employ people to work within the migrant communities and have created links with the home communities of their migrant residents – they sponsor a Goodwin Football Cup in West Africa, as well as donating refurbished PCs and building educational links.  Absolutely sensational stuff from a community organisation, that is again owned and managed by the residents of the Thornhill Estate.


One last example is Acumen Community Development Trust in Easington in County Durham.  Another former mining community, Easington was firmly located as one of the most deprived areas of the country in terms of unemployment, poor health, education levels and almost any other index of deprivation. It really was a community that was going downhill fast. Acumen was launched in May 2003 and has quickly developed a turnover exceeding £2 million per year through imagination and initiative. 


It started off by trying to improve the local environment. Six thousand of the fourteen thousand residents signed up to a campaign to clean up the town. That is a remarkable level of involvement, but local people decided they wanted to improve the place they lived – collecting rubbish, working with the council to get rid of the burnt out cars and fly tipping, and so on.  As part of the process, they decided they wanted flower beds and hanging baskets to make the town look better, so they set up their own nursery business to provide the flowers. That created employment, new jobs for local people, and now the nursery has contracts across the whole of the North-East region. Incidentally, that year Easington also won the runner-up in the Britain in Bloom competition in their category. 








However, that was just the start as imaginations flourished. The trust then launched a community Pop Idol project. Three hundred young people, almost all unemployed, entered. They all had great fun and the 60 finalists were given presentation skills, confidence building, and communication skills training – exactly the transferable soft skills that employers want. Almost all of those 60 young people are now in employment.


Then the trust took over responsibility for business start-up support.  Within 12 months Acumen had increased the rate of new business start-ups from five to six a year to 50-60 a year and were the regional winners of a prestigious enterprise award. They also developed a community café which was so successful that an out of town superstore have asked them to run their café on site. They are now developing one of the old pit-head buildings as business units and have created several other social enterprises too.  Local people are benefiting through new jobs, new training opportunities, and profits are re-circulated within the community. 


What I think is really inspirational about this as an example is that it that Easington was a community that was going nowhere, that felt powerless in the face of economic change, that had no control over what was happening, and yet in five years has been transformed into a community with confidence, a community that believes it can challenge deprivation and exclusion, and take responsibility for change – and that for me is important.


I have given a few powerful examples of what a community can do with vision and ambition.  What can we learn from these case studies?  I find it useful to use a simple modelling tool called Logical Levels to explain the key dynamics. 


It works on the premise that if you change something lower down on the pyramid, it will not have a lasting impact on ‘higher’ levels.  However, change something higher on the pyramid, and you can create lasting change on the ‘lower’ levels.


To use the example of a confident community - if you change the environment (the ‘where’) it is not necessarily going to make the area into a better place to live.  We have all seen examples where money has been invested to build new buildings, new community facilities etc, but the change has not been sustainable.  Look at many of the estates built in the 1960s, which were seen at the time as the ‘housing for the future’.  Just changing the environment is not going to create confident, healthy communities.  It helps, but it is not going to do it by itself. 


Similarly, we have seen attempts to regulate behaviour (the ‘what’) through Asbos, through anti-social clauses in housing tenure etc.  There may be a role for such initiatives, and they may help to maintain the built environment, but by themselves they are not going to transform a community.


Now look at capabilities (the ‘how’).  In this context, we are looking at the neighbourhood management concept, with training and investment in local residents to determine and run some of the services and facilities for the community.  And again, that is really important, that can really make a difference, but it can only go so far.


What I think is really important is the next level up – beliefs and values (the ‘why’). This is where you get a community sharing a vision; when you get a community that is clear about what they are trying to achieve, what is important to them.  Then you have the basis for a successful, confident, resilient community.  If you do not get that right, involving local residents and getting that shared vision, then the other initiatives will not work in the long term, and that is the challenge for the Better Archway Forum.  


So that is my message. That is the focus. That is what underpins a confident, successful and resilient community. It is about having shared values, a shared understanding, and a shared vision for the future. That is what really makes the difference.

bottom of page