A million pounds can go a long way but sometimes it can be hard to know where to turn. Louise Tickle goes to Cumbria.

Two women stand in the middle of a piece of derelict land, surrounded by concrete slabs, scrubby grass and cracked tarmac. It looks bad but they have a plan. And they’ve got Lottery cash to spend.

One of the women, Rhoda Robinson, is a retired nurse who had worked at the nearby Sellafield nuclear plant. Pointing at the 1.7-acre site in the remote Cumbrian coastal village of Distington: population 1,700, she says: “We bought it because we’d have been in a lot of bother with people here if we hadn’t.”

The British Legion building on the site was once a well-used community venue but it was demolished after the punters stopped coming, explains the second woman, Ingrid Morris. She is the project manager employed by Distington’s “Big Local” partnership – one of 150 in similar areas of England that were each handed £1m of Lottery money between 2010 and 2014, and told they could spend it pretty much as they saw fit.

The Big Local areas were selected because they were seen to have missed out on their fair share of Lottery grants and other funding – perhaps because they lacked capacity to write decent bids. Some of them have spent a lot of money fast on ambitious capital builds, investment in local enterprise, addressing skills gaps and raising people’s’ self-esteem. Others have struggled to make decisions at all so much of their cash is languishing in the bank.

The idea being tested by Big Local is that by devolving decision-making to a hyper-local level in communities ravaged by decades of de-industrialisation, residents will use their intimate knowledge of local need to commission projects that do the job better, and earlier, than large-scale, public-sector commissioning can manage. From its London head office, the charity Local Trust supports each Big Local group. Local Trust Chief Executive, Matt Leach, calls the nationwide project “a radical experiment.” And there is optimism – and now some evidence from Big Local areas – that people in “left-behind” parts of the country can, over time, develop the abilities and confidence needed to make their lives better. But there is also risk.

Individuals who step up must grapple with challenges that fragile communities typically have little experience of. For example, developing the diplomatic skills needed to deal with local councils that see the £1m as a pot of cash for their pet projects has often proved tricky. In some Big Local areas, overbearing councillors have been banned from sitting on partnerships (in others, interestingly, Big Local volunteers have gained the self-belief and experience to stand as candidates themselves).

At Hawksworth Wood Big Local in Leeds, two years of intractable conflict between members of the board exhausted volunteers’ energy and compromised their ability to deliver much with their million. With a new Chair however, there is renewed impetus and the sprouting of hope.

On the Isle of Sheppey, a rural, dispersed population that soars in holiday and harvest season but plummets over winter, has meant its Big Local has struggled to marshal a sense of community ownership of the project. And recruiting new and especially younger members is hard. Such geographical and social constraints can be difficult if not impossible to overcome.

However, in tiny, isolated Distington, local people took an immediate and vocal interest in a plot of land they had always viewed as integral to the village. As soon as it was advertised, the Big Local partnership was assailed by pleas from residents who urgently wanted it to be purchased for the public good. The group, chaired by Robinson, swiftly agreed to shell out £80,000 for the land with absolutely no idea what to do with it. “It was sort of backside first,” grins Sue Hunter, who has lived in the village for six years and now leads the sub-group charged with planning the site’s future.

“Geographical and social constraints can be difficult if not impossible to overcome.”

Thanks to having a million in the bank however, Distington Big Local could afford to be nimble, paying for architects who specialised in participatory design to do the community consultation later. As ideas for allotments, astroturf and a swimming pool fell by the wayside, locals saw that while cheap houses for young families were in plentiful supply – this isolated part of Cumbria was decidedly not a tourism honeypot – old people struggled to continue living in the village as they became mentally or physically infirm. The idea for a bespoke development of dementia-friendly housing was born. For the partnership to agree to go ahead, it needed residents’ approval: 79% came out in favour.

But clearly, the Distington volunteers were not professional developers. And a significant snag in the Big Local model is that it requires plenty of time. Words like patient, “careful” and “slow” that feature in reports on Big Local areas’ progress will never fit with volatile political priorities or Treasury spending cycles. Leach acknowledges that the model is not without flaws: “In some deprived, resource-starved communities there can be apathy, tension and conflict. You can see that manifest in it taking a long time to get a Big Local partnership off the ground, and you can sometimes see conflicts re-emerging four or five years down the line,” says Leach. But he also argues that part of what is strong about the model “is that problems don’t have to derail things, because we can take a ten- or 15-year perspective. People can try again.”

Meanwhile, councils such as Northampton are going bust and savagely cut budgets are increasingly leaving local authorities able only to firefight. So acute crises are emerging in areas such as child protection. Arguably there needs to be a complete about-turn in how public services are conceived of and delivered.

New Local Government Network Director Adam Lent outlines how he believes the Big Local experiment could be a pathfinder for radical change in the public sector’s understanding of what it exists to do.

“There’s a growing acceptance on the frontline of local government that there is a need to hand over power and resource to people,” he said. An alarming growth in demand for services that councils know they couldn’t cope with even if budgets reverted to pre-2010 levels, has prompted, Lent says, “a realisation that there’s a need for a preventative approach, because you just can’t keep meeting acute demand. And you can’t build a preventative system based on the old hierarchical way of doing things, because prevention requires citizens to take responsibility earlier on.”

Big Local money will only go so far. Ideas for how to resource and structure a so-called Community Wealth Fund are now being worked up by an alliance of 170 civil society organisations. They are all exhorting government to invest billions into a new approach of nurturing citizen’s skills so they can develop their own hyper-local solutions to their communities’ problems.

The Distington housing that could ease pressure on Cumbria’s NHS and council-run services by enabling future generations of older people with dementia to live at home for longer will cost around £5m to build. “We say it fast,” says Robinson. But while the Big Local partnership doesn’t have this much ready cash, its million-pound bonanza has given these motivated local residents an unusual degree of financial welly – and power over what happens in their neighbourhood. They recently stumped up for external expertise to write a complex bid to Homes England for £157,000 – a sum they’ve just been granted. It means Distington can now afford the extensive professional support required to draw up a fully scoped-out planning application for 41 new housing units for over 55s.

But would a million pounds to a cash-strapped local council be a better bet than handing it out to citizens? The Big Local model isn’t necessarily going to be the answer for every community and doesn’t work everywhere, says Leach, “but that’s something you could say of every government or council-run programme that ever existed: the public sector does not have a unblemished record of solving serious social problems, notwithstanding often excellent intentions and multiple millions to spend.”

The point of this particular approach is that people don’t need to get things right first time – it might take some communities many years to address entrenched deprivation and the loss of critically important social infrastructure. “But at the end of the programme it will have helped build groups of people capable of taking on challenges and standing a better chance of addressing them effectively on their own terms,” Leach says.

Of course, the Distington Big Local volunteers could have opted for an easy life, handed the land over to a housing association and taken a ground rent, “but we really hope we can take it right to the end,” says Hunter. “With a community thing like this you take a few steps and then review, to see if you have the capacity,” she adds. “And that’s why – except at the start – we are taking our time.”

Louise Tickle

Freelance journalist Louise Tickle specialises in writing on education and social affairs. She has recently completed a year as “journalist at large” for the charity Local Trust, and her features, …

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