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Keep it local: unlocking the power of community

Source: PSE: Aug/Sep 19

Tony Armstrong, chief executive of Locality, argues why we must move away from the scale and standardisation of public services and instead ‘Keep it Local’ to prosper from community collaboration.

We are nearly a decade into a deep austerity programme of which councils have shouldered the heaviest burden. Now, coupled with rising demand and the increasingly complex nature of need, many services are facing crisis. 

Research has also shown that local authorities have been driven to shift much of their spending from prevention to crisis spending in recent years. However, many places have responded positively to these challenging circumstances by unlocking the power of community. 

Recent trends 

Most services are, and always will be, delivered by the public sector itself. However, local community organisations play a unique role in the local service landscape. From homelessness to employment support, children’s services to adult social care, community organisations are vital wherever trusting relationships, local knowledge and long-term commitment are required. They are multipurpose and they can respond flexibly and with innovation - this is the way to tackle underlying issues from the start and to reduce long-term pressure on the system.  

Frustratingly, the public service landscape over the last decade has been characterised by a bureaucratic approach to service commissioning, which drives competition instead of creating the conditions for local collaboration. This – and the trend towards scale and standardisation – has left local service provision the increasing preserve of a handful of big national and multinational providers, who can swoop in and win the mega contracts on offer.

A turning tide 

However, we think the tide is beginning to turn. The collapse of Carillion, and other associated outsourcing disasters, have forced the conversation around risk to change. It has shown that multi-nationals are not the risk-free option, quite the opposite in fact. When mega-contracts fail, they fail in spectacular fashion and leave our most vulnerable in desperate need of support. 

Our Keep it Local campaign, which we’re running in partnership with Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales, is harnessing this energy for a new way of working. More and more places are doing things differently: building strong local partnerships, sharing power, and maximising their local strengths. Keep it Local is building a coalition of supportive local authorities to help one another forge a new path. We’re asking others to join the movement. 

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Keep it Local in practice 

There are many practical steps places can take to make the move away from bureaucratic commissioning. Breaking contracts into smaller lots, using grants where possible, announcing commissioning intentions as early as possible, embedding co-design into commissioning processes - these are just a small selection of the simple steps authorities can take to harness the latent power in their communities.  

Where a procurement process is required, there are alternative approaches which shift the balance away from competition.  Alliance contracting – where the commissioners and providers are part of a shared risk and reward contract – can help foster collaboration and join up services. Plymouth Council has pioneered this approach for its complex needs provision. Oldham Council’s innovation partnership for social prescribing has allowed for the co-design and iteration of a service that meets local needs rather than the service being designed and ‘fixed’ at the outset. 

We also need to be more ambitious about social value legislation. It is not yet well-embedded in commissioning, but it has the potential to be transformative. Its application across the country has been highly varied. However, through our conversations with councils, it is clear it’s a framework local authorities want to use more effectively. If used ambitiously, social value provides a big opportunity to maximise the long-term benefits community organisations bring to the local area. 

We need a proper understanding of EU procurement rules which are often seen as the villain when it comes to thinking locally and this is not the case. 

Previous research by Locality identified that commissioning remains fractured, in particular the relationship between commissioners and procurement officers. Newcastle Council recognised this and merged their commissioning and procurement teams as part of their approach to delivering social value in the city. 

Economic, social and environmental impacts 

Local authorities’ financial futures look set to be increasingly dependent on the success of their local economies, with the shift to business rate retention. Local authorities now have a pressing need to understand the impact of their spending decisions on the local economy, and ensure they are doing all they can to maximise the benefits to their local tax base. There is growing interest in using procurement to invest and reinvest in the local economy. 

Community organisations are powerful economic agents. They can play a crucial role in the local economy by acting as local economic multipliers. The wealth they generate is redistributed locally, they employ local people in good quality jobs, use local supply chains and invest in people themselves to become economically active. Profit is ploughed back into the community rather than leaking away to distant shareholders. For example, we found every £1 of income generated by Locality member Bradford Trident creates £2.52 for the local economy. 

Another of our members, Halifax Opportunities Trust, created 'The Outback' community garden and kitchen on disused land using their surpluses. It is a fabulous facility based in the centre of very concentrated housing and business, providing green space, organic fruit and vegetables and a communal kitchen for local people to cook, eat and meet. 

Through a previous action research project with six local authorities, we sought to identify the characteristics of economically resilient places. A clean and sustainable environment was one of these characteristics. A shift away from existing commissioning practice towards a system which harnesses local assets can contribute towards this goal. 

As seen in the Halifax example, community organisations can offer access to food without an excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers and through a localised supply chain. Carbon release is minimised through reduced use of petrol and diesel for transport. Many local community organisations steward local parks and spaces – providing increased access to nature, combatting isolation, allowing opportunities for exercise and increasing wellbeing.

Where next? 

In June, we hosted the inaugural Keep it Local conference, bringing together the leading lights of this growing movement – hearing about what Keep it Local means in a variety of settings, from Hackney to Calderdale, Bristol to Bradford and beyond. 

We heard that, whilst meaning different things in different places, there are a set of common motivations for taking a different approach. Keep it Local can result in better, more responsive services for local people and a reduction of long-term pressure on the system by tackling problems at source. It is rooted in a recognition that the complex, long-term nature of our big social problems mean they can’t be solved by top-down plans or market incentives. 

We’ve sought to understand the tangible, practical steps commissioners, councils and communities are taking together, and along with them, we have designed six Keep it Local principles. Newcastle City Council leader, Nick Forbes, recently publicly endorsed the principles to join the Keep it Local Network and we’re asking others to do the same. We believe that these principles can guide policy and practice built upon partnership between councils and communities. 

The six Keep it Local principles: 

  • Think about the whole system and not individual service silos
  • Coordinate services at the neighbourhood level
  • Increase local spend to invest in the local economy
  • Focus on early intervention now to save costs tomorrow
  • Commit to your community and proactively support local organisations
  • Commission services simply and collaboratively so they are local by default.


We know that changing direction is a difficult thing to do. So that’s why we’ve formed the Keep it Local Network – to support each other to make change happen. We are at a critical juncture. Business as usual is not an option. Let’s take a different, better, and more sustainable path. Let’s Keep it Local.


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