Prime minister Tony Blair’s usual response to criticisms that he
has failed to improve services is that it takes time to reverse the
effects of 18 years of Conservative rule.
Despite the government’s tendency to appeal to voters for their
patience while it takes on the enormous task of improving services,
it has shown little appreciation of the similar – albeit smaller –
task facing residents in some of England’s most deprived
Residents involved in the £2bn New Deal for Communities (NDC)
community-led regeneration initiative may not be faced with
problems on the same scale as the government, but their job to
transform neighbourhoods deprived for decades is neither swift nor
But having allocated about £50m to each of the 39 NDCschemes
over 10 years, there is an overwhelming feeling among those
involved that the government is now expecting results from its
investment that will show its flagship regeneration programme is
Helen McCarthy, a researcher at think-tank Demos, says the
government’s expectation for concrete results just four years into
the programme is a problem. “Ten years is not actually that long
for neighbourhoods where public services have historically
Caroline Gaunt, policy officer at Urban Forum, an umbrella body for
voluntary and community groups, says: “The idea of creating a
community-led programme was unprecedented and it will take a long
time to achieve.”
But even if the government should be more modest in its
expectations, a question remains over whether NDC schemes should
have made more progress.
Bad publicity has dogged the initiative, which was launched in
1999, and there have been reports that some of the schemes have
been split by power struggles between community representatives and
other agencies sitting on partnership boards.
One of the NDC schemes that has had problems is Aston Pride in
Birmingham, which failed to establish proper constitutional
arrangements and consequently spent just £2.4m of its
£54m allocation between 2001 and 2003. Following government
intervention, Aston Pride’s board was told it had to create a new
partnership delivery model because it was spending money too
Other NDC schemes have also underspent and there are fears that,
unless the cash is used more quickly, the Treasury will reduce
future funding for regeneration.
But Gaunt says this slowness is not necessarily bad because it
shows thought is going into how it can best be used. Before the
first allocation was made available, schemes had a year zero in
which to consider how they might use it, and Gaunt believes this
period should have been longer.
Despite some of the negative press that has surrounded the scheme,
an evaluation carried out by Sheffield Hallam University and
published last week is positive about its future (news, page 10, 23
It highlights the fact that four-fifths of NDC schemes have
involved communities, while in some areas elections for community
representatives are attracting 87 per cent of the public vote, a
considerable achievement when there are councils that struggle to
achieve a 40 per cent turnout.
But the report also points to several problems, including
disagreements between community representatives and other agencies
about how money should be spent.
McCarthy admits that flaws in the programme have hindered the
success of NDC so far. While the government has given local people
the responsibility for finding solutions to crime, drugs, health,
education and housing problems in their area, little has been done
to build infrastructure at local level to allow them to do this,
Staffing issues are described as the “single most important
constraint on delivery” in the report, which says just 40 per cent
of NDC schemes are fully staffed.
The picture it paints is one in which staff with the right mix of
skills are hard to recruit and retain.
Community representatives are leaving because of burn-out,
chairpersons are changing more often than they should, and chief
executives are departing.
Residents involved in NDC can find it costly on several fronts. A
survey carried out by Urban Forum found that 78 per cent of
respondents devoted an average of 12 hours a week without
They were also unsure about how their benefits entitlements might
be affected by their work, and some had complained about the red
tape involved in claiming expenses for sums as small as
Community representatives also face pressures from local people to
represent their interests.
It is a demanding role, requiring energy, imagination and the
ability to juggle various pressures. No wonder some schemes are
finding it difficult to attract people who will offer a long-term
McCarthy says: “You will always hear stories about people who have
done great things for their community and have an entrepreneurial
approach. But there is too much crossing of fingers and hoping
those people will be in every area.”
She adds that the community representatives are being asked to
“deliver complex initiatives” but their skills need to be developed
and motivation kept alive.
Alan McDade, housing co-ordinator at Bristol’s NDC, Community at
Heart, which funds about 100 projects, admits that attracting
community representatives is difficult.
A former community representative himself, he knows how demanding
the job can be. He became involved with the NDC when he took a
neighbour who had been mugged to a community safety meeting and
became frustrated at the proposed solutions to cutting crime in the
area. His involvement grew from there and, as a part-time postal
worker, he was able to devote a lot of time to meetings. With the
help of the NDC, McDade, who left school with no qualifications,
undertook a housing degree and obtained a job at the NDC.
But although the NDC has changed his life, McDade says meeting the
demands of the community and the government is not easy, and admits
he now avoids using his nearby shops to escape constant pressure
“Local people were under the impression that the NDC would be an
overnight success story. But Barton Hill [an area of Bristol] will
never have this money again, so we need to spend it wisely,” he
At the same time, says McDade, the government pushes the schemes to
spend and the emphasis is on “deliver, deliver, deliver”. This
pressure, plus the inexperience of many on the partnership board,
led in the beginning to money being wasted in projects that were
More time and the opportunity to work as a shadow partnership board
would have led to fewer problems, adds McDade.
Chief executives also find themselves tugged in different
directions by the community and by the government. Director of the
Centre for Local Economic Strategies Neil McInroy says: “On one
hand, NDC is bottom-up. It is about the community steering
development. It takes time, skills and patience to manage that. On
the other, the chief executive has to meet an amazing number of
targets from the government.”
He adds that the government needs to be less rigid and
target-driven, and allow NDC schemes to make a few mistakes if
necessary without feeling under threat of government
The Sheffield Hallam University evaluation concludes that there is
a sentiment running through NDC schemes that “now is the time to
deliver”. McDade agrees: “We have always said four, five and six
would be the years we would deliver.”
It is to be hoped they are all right.